The Best Movie Critic + review

Short Cuts

Hey gang, Ben here, concluding my three week look at some less frequently visited movies by Robert Altman. In cased you missed them, check out my previous pieces on 3 Women and California Split.

Short Cuts is a movie so at odds with my outlook and experience that I find it an utterly miserable affair. Nevertheless, it is a masterfully orchestrated production, like all of Robert Altman’s movies. Nashville chronicled interweaving stories from all walks of life in that Southern city; Short Cuts does the same for Los Angeles. A successful news anchor (Bruce Davidson) and his wife (Andie McDowell) are faced with the possible death of their 6-year-old son (Zane Cassidy) after he is hit by a car. The driver of the car (Lily Tomlin) is preoccupied with the fate of her marriage to a drunken and abusive limo driver (Tom Waits). An aging lounge singer (Annie Ross) who lives next door to the news anchor can’t connect with her suicidal daughter (Lori Singer). Their pool cleaner (Chris Penn) silently rages with frustration when his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a phone sex worker, won’t muster any passion for their own relationship. I could go on, but you get the idea. Like Jean Renoir before him and P.T. Anderson after him, Altman excels at managing large ensembles and interweaving stories. However, unlike Renoir, unlike Anderson, and unlike Nashville, Short Cuts presupposes that the accidental circumstances that guide our life without our knowledge or consent work only to our detriment. The modicum of human grace that salvages the worst situations in Altman’s other movies is entirely missing here.

The acting is phenomenal across the board, which is, I suppose, to be expected when your cast features Bruce Davidson, Robert Downey, Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Lemon, Francis McDormand, Andie McDowell, Julianne Moore, Chris Penn, Tim Robins, Madeline Stowe, Lily Taylor, Lily Tomlin, and Fred Ward. It’s difficult to say anything in particular about any of these performances. They’re all pros, you know? If I had to pick a standout, I’d probably go with scenery chewing Tim Robbins as an asshole cop who is so smug about his infidelities he’ll make you want to puke – a common theme with many of Short Cuts’ male characters. An impossibly young Julianne Moore almost makes it through the movie’s entire 3 hour run time without getting naked, which I believe would be a first for her. Sure enough, however, with nary 20 minutes to spare, Old Faithful bares her flaming red pubic hair for the world to see. In these uncertain times, it’s good to have something we can count on.

Short Cuts also features three notable performances by musicians. Lyle Lovett, an early 90s Altman bit part favorite, proves once again that he is a terrible actor but nevertheless a warm and engaging screen presence. Lovett’s non-acting actually makes his semi-creepy, passive-aggressive cake decorator one of Short Cuts’ most genuine characters. Huey Lewis (?!?) shows up in a small role as a misogynistic, morally questionable fishing buddy. Finally, Tom Waits does his best film work here. It appears at first that he is playing himself more or less, like in Coffee and Cigarettes or The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Only later do we find out that a) his character is a terrible singer, and b) he’s possibly a child molester. You know, range.

Short Cuts, though specifically based on a series of Raymond Carver short stories, owes an enormous debt to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Though Renior’s movie is geographically confined to a single countryside estate while Altman’s sprawls across the L.A. metropolitan area, both are concerned with diverse spheres of drama, resisting boundaries of class, sex, and the division of public and private. Both detail complicated webs of sexual infidelity. Both end with a cataclysmic event that reorganizes and refocuses the players – in Rules of the Game a murder, in Short Cuts an earthquake.*

Here is the difference as I see it: The Rules of the Game offers moments of levity that Short Cuts does not. All of the cheating and fooling around effects the characters in the most serious ways by the end, but in order to get to that point, the audience must be allowed to latch on to some of the fun and lightheartedness of “continental infidelity” before being served a big emotional whopper. In The Rules of the Game, Renoir’s characters have human grace. They hurt, but they also hope. They are casually resilient. Not so in Short Cuts. Altman’s ensemble is miserable in minute 1, and they’re miserable in minute 180. And if you can cut through this movie without osmosizing some of that misery, you are a better person than I.

I wholeheartedly acknowledge that Short Cuts is a masterful production, effortlessly guided by Altman’s steady hand. And I don’t require every movie I see to be euphorically life affirming. However, I want to be honest here, Short Cuts’ pessimism feels phony to me. I buy that we are all pummeled by chance and luck, but I don’t see chance and luck as singularly negative forces. The scales balance out. Earlier Altman movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, and California Split bear witness to this. Those movies suggest that even the most morally questionable characters have some small spark that makes them worthwhile by some litmus. There is something deep inside us that justifies taking up space on this rock for a few short years. It’s grace. It’s levity. It’s also entirely absent from Short Cuts. The fact that this is the movie Altman made after all of those others I mentioned is the depressing cherry on top of this misery cake.


*Notice how P.T. Anderson lifts this idea directly for the “rain of frogs” in Magnolia. Anderson idolized Altman and even served as understudy director on the latter’s final production, A Prairie Home Companion.

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Short Cuts + review