Short Cuts (1993) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, some strong language and nudity
Running Time: 187 min.

Cast: Tim Robbins, Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Frances McDormand, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Peter Gallagher, Lily Tomlin, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Julianne Moore, Lori Singer, Chris Penn, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Annie Ross, Robert Downey Jr., Lili Taylor, Lyle Lovett, Jack Lemmon, Lane Cassidy, Huey Lewis
Robert Altman
Screenplay: Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt
Review published May 12, 2004

I'd like to say that I understand what Short Cuts is all about and Altman's intent on this vignette style film featuring several different interconnected storylines that jump between each other every minute or two.  Frankly, I don't.  However, whether or not there is any message, doesn't exactly keep me from finding it interesting and entertaining enough to make it enjoyable, and often absorbing. 

Robert Altman's (The Player, Popeye) film is loosely adapted from the writings of Raymond Carver, who wrote short stories that dealt with ordinary people and ordinary lives.  Essentially, the stories have no outward purpose save to capture a moment, a feeling, or an interesting situation that provokes some emotion or thought, but lets the reader experience it as written and make what he will of it.  If Altman intended to do the same with his film, then he has succeeded.  Short Cuts did move me emotionally at times, it made me think in others, but at no time did I ever think I understood what any particular story's purpose was.  Perhaps that is the intent.  Life is random, confusing, meaningless...but we take it for what it is, ups or downs, and just move on.

I could spend an inordinate amount of time on the plot, put with so many stories and characters, I'm going to just give the general gist of things.  Los Angeles is being sprayed constantly with chemicals in order to try to wipe out the dreaded medfly, while people around the Los Angeles area try to cope with personal crises of their own.  Death and infidelity are the main subjects Short Cuts delves into, following 22 different people and interconnecting their stories in small ways to form a greater picture.

Looking back at Altman's work, it can clearly be seen as the successor to Grand Canyon and predecessor to Magnolia, with their multi-character, multi-story construction, each interwoven to provide some semblance of cohesion.  However, Short Cuts is a much more ambivalent work, not really having a great deal of underlying purpose as to why these stories needed to be told together.  If it's a conglomeration of Raymond Carver stories reworked into a three-hour movie, then the joining of the stories is probably more as a way of tying things together to economize characters, rather than an attempt at a common thematic goal.

Some of the stories are amusing, some tragic, but all are interesting in their own way.  There's an impressive array of actors here, although not necessarily studded with superstars.  The acting is solid, but not outstanding, and the same goes for the direction by Altman.  There was the potential for a tour de force venture here, but I don't think Altman was trying to hit a home run.  He just wanted to bring together these interesting stories for our perusal, offering little in the way of personal comment (very unlike Grand Canyon and Magnolia, which were decidedly moralistic styles of filmmaking).

Short Cuts is primarily recommended for fans of Altman, or any of the individual members of the ensemble cast, and even if none of them get much screen time, their performances are all memorable enough to stand out.   It's smart, funny, sad, and intelligent, and despite the overriding message seeming mostly intangible, it still manages to offer enough food for thought to more then justify its three hour running time.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo