Short Cuts Movie Review
Cast & Crew
Director : Robert Altman
Producer : Cary Brokaw
Starring : Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Jack Lemmon, Lane Cassidy, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Joseph C. Hopkins, Josette Maccario, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr, Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Cassie Friel, Dustin Friel, Austin Friel, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Jarrett Lennon, Annie Ross, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis
Spinning together a series of short stories from the master of the form, Raymond Carver, Altman takes some 20-odd Los Angelenos and twists their lives together seemingly just for the fun of how their individual little lives play out and connect up, like a puppetmaster who can't stop adding new puppets to his repertoire. To flesh out his tapestry of early '90s Southern California life, Altman has a fine batch of actors and actresses, including everyone from the best of their generation (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr) to the solidly respectable but not terribly exciting choices (Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Madeleine Stowe) to oddly effective musician stunt casting (Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, Huey Lewis) to one lordly presence (Jack Lemmon).
Chaotic where Nashville was simply adrift, and free of larger import where the other film attempted to rope significance into its nonexistent plot by dint of its political subtext, Short Cuts is a messy tableau that captures its myriad characters in compromising positions of all kinds, where they invariably do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Sprawling out over about three hours, the film's stories are in and of themselves nothing that extraordinary, but taken as a whole they create a wider picture of a city where although there is plenty of interaction - characters from one subplot wander into another, usually as chance encounters or due to a fleeting friendship or acquaintance - but precious little intimacy. This is the kind of isolation that Carver's fiction excelled at, and even though his reticent Pacific Northwesterners would not on the surface seem well placed in the pitiless and smoggy L.A. sun, Altman is going for the universal here, and the change of scenery works just fine. Perhaps less successful is the amount of time that he allots himself for each subplot, which can have the effect of making the characters seem at times to be less human beings than pieces of the puzzle, a way for the viewer to get from Person A to Person M in three to four degrees of separation.
Cruelty runs through most of the stories here. There's the waitress (Lily Tomlin) who hits a small child with her car but lets him walk home, terrified of what will happen to her. Not long after, he goes into a coma, leaving his parents (Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison) frantic with worry but still having to deal with a strangely sadistic baker (Lyle Lovett). A phone sex operator (Jennifer Jason Leigh) freezes out her husband (Chris Penn) physically and emotionally, a cop (Tim Robbins) tomcats around on his wife (Madeline Stowe), and a pilot (Peter Gallagher) gets ready to extract some justice from his embittered ex-wife (Frances McDormand). There's not exactly a lot of love and warmth to go around here, and to top it all off, the film has a decidedly apocalyptic undertone, from the opening scene full of helicopters spraying potentially dangerous insecticides over a sleeping city, to the earthquake and murder at the conclusion. Altman's usual skill with actors is very much in evidence here, as he allows them to improvise and riff along a few standard themes and find the human core in what could have been simply a litany of cruelty and bad luck.
While Short Cuts may be no more in the end than a blizzard of human frailty, it's an exceptionally well-acted (the cast as a whole won a special Golden Globe) and crisply written one, that impresses not just with the sheer weight of its actorly pedigree and length, but the wide, expressive gamut of emotions and lives that it puts on display.
The Criterion Collection DVD includes an interview with and documentary on Raymond Carver, deleted scenes, new digital transfer, a conversation between Robert Altman and Tim Robbins and a special edition book containing all the Carver short stories the film was based on.
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