Short Cuts (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Helicopters thunder through the air over Los Angeles, raining malathion on the city in an attempt to end the dreaded Medfly invasion. Below, in each house and apartment, an individual drama is being played out. As in any human settlement at any time in history, there is joy, sadness, jealousy, fear, reconciliation, pain, and death. With Short Cuts, a film by director Robert Altman based on nine short stories and one poem by the late Raymond Carver, the audience is given a glimpse into several of those dramas.

Infidelity mars two marriages, while a tragic accident to another couple's son brings their lives to an abrupt halt. A trio of fishing buddies find a dead girl's body floating near their campsite. Another marriage is troubled by a husband's uncertainty about his wife's career choice -- running a phone sex business. A man decides to teach his estranged wife a little something about the real meaning of "dividing things up", and a mother and daughter discover the pain that can come from not communicating.

Twenty-two characters and ten tales -- it would take a master to interweave all of these into a seamless whole. There are few directors who would tackle the challenge, and fewer still who could succeed. Not only has Robert Altman faced the Herculean task, but he has emerged victorious. Short Cuts is a magnificent triumph, an example that dramas can still be found that don't make use of the time-honored tactics of manipulation and oversentimentalization.

Each of the stories told in Short Cuts (except perhaps one) could easily warrant its own movie. There are facets of each character that are left unexplored, and, in a sense, we're still waiting for more when the final credits begin to roll. In spite of the long running time, there's a lot left unsaid and undone by the time the movie slides into home plate.

What is impressive about Short Cuts is not only that it presents so many diverse personalities and situations, but that it manages to interconnect them in a manner that doesn't leave the viewer shaking his or her head in confusion. The film's texture is rich, and the three hours fly by. Fans of Carver, however, should check their expectations at the door -- these are not strict adaptations (as the change of setting from the Pacific Northwest to angst-riddled LA indicates). Altman admits that Short Cuts is "not a verbatim retelling of Carver's works, but rather a cinematic interpretation of their essence."

Altman has surrounded himself with an ensemble cast that includes some highly-respected names. Some he has worked with before; others are new to his fold. For the most part, the performances are solidly-executed, although there are instances of overacting. Matthew Modine, Andie MacDowell, Madeleine Stowe, and Tim Robins have moments of anger that don't ring true. However, in the overall scope of things, this is a minor complaint.

As is almost always the case in a movie of this nature, there will be a story or two that won't interest you much, and a certain group of characters which, for one reason or another, will enthrall you. One of the strongest attributes of Short Cuts is that the stories occupying the "middle ground" are all in some way compelling. For the record, my favorite sequences involve three families -- the Kaisers (Chris Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh), the Finnigans (Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison), and the Shepards (Madeleine Stowe and Tim Robbins). The weakest portions, on the other hand, feature husband-and-wife Earl and Doreen Piggot (Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin), and the fishing expedition (Fred Ward, Buck Henry, and Huey Lewis).

In some ways, Short Cuts is loosely-reminiscent of last year's Grand Canyon. In this case, the project is more ambitious and the premise less forced, but there are noticeable similarities. Short Cuts is the better of the two films (Grand Canyon couldn't resist resorting to manipulation), but similar themes are explored, and some of the same motifs (including an earthquake) are used.

It's a genuine pleasure to find a movie with such a deep and intelligent portrayal of simple human lives, with all their minor triumphs and tragedies. Short Cuts is an example of a highly- respected modern director in top form.

Short Cuts (United States, 1993)

Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1993
Run Time: 3:09
U.S. Release Date: 1993-10-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: