Review: Short Cuts (1993)

Director: Robert Altman

****

By the time Robert Altman received his fifth Academy Award nomination for directing Short Cuts, he had already established his reputation as a master of ensemble direction. If nothing else, Short Cuts consolidated that reputation, its breadth and scope handled with the sensitivity of a master craftsman at work.

Like previous Altman films, and most notably since in PT Anderson’s Magnolia, Short Cuts deals with the seemingly random intersections between seemingly disparate characters that seem to define life as we know it. When Doreen (Lily Tomlin) left for work one morning, did she expect to knock down a young boy named Casey (Zane Cassidy) with her car? Did she imagine the effect that would have on his parents (Bruce Davison and Andie McDowell)? And how the hell does she tolerate her slobby husband Earl (Tom Waits). These are but two storylines in a multi-tiered script by Altman and Frank Barhydt. Based on the stories of Raymond Carver, each story could make a film of its own (one segment about a group of fishermen who find a corpse in a river was inspired by the same story that inspired Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne), yet the script makes the most of the limited time it has (three hours isn’t a lot when you’ve got this many stories to cover). Every character gets an arc and a fair share of screentime. Dr. Wyman (Matthew Modine) takes the best of care of Casey in hospital, but his marriage to artist Marian (Julianne Moore) is crumbling, as is that of Marian’s sister Sherri (Madeline Stowe) and her husband, the unpleasant Gene (Tim Robbins). On the side, he’s seeing Betty (Frances McDormand), whose marriage to the impulsive ‘Stormy’ (Peter Gallagher) has rendered her an unstable single mom.

Neither Gene nor Betty is necessarily the most unpleasant character in Short Cuts (though their philandering and boorish ways would put them in most people’s Top 3 at least), and there is an argument to be made against watching tales of some truly repulsive people. Why didn’t Stuart (Fred Ward) and his fishing buddies report the body in the river immediately? Why does Jerry (Chris Penn) tolerate his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) working as a phone sex operator if it repulses him? And why is a baker (Lyle Lovett) so obsessed over a rejected cake? Again, this is just a small cross-section of stories. Altman shows us some very sad and pathetic people, but they’re truthful. Throughout Short Cuts, there is a refreshing honesty, as characters confront their miseries, frustrations and sexual misgivings. If you can’t identify with make-up artist Bill (Robert Downey Jr.) and his girlfriend Honey (Lili Taylor), you might like her parents, Doreen and Earl… aaaand we’re back where we started. Magnolia may have overtaken Altman’s opus as the definitive LA ensemble, and it may end on a terrible deus ex machina, but Short Cuts is still a bitter little slice of sun-ripened honesty, crafted with precision by a great director and with sterling performances throughout.

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