In the miraculously lifelike clutter of the greatest Robert Altman films there are moments of pure emotional magnitude that seem to lay bare the essence-the elusive, shifting soul-of a character’s humanity. I’m thinking of Lily Tomlin in Nashville (1975) listening silently on the phone to a hunky pop singer’s come-on and realizing, right then, that she’s willing to stray from her marriage, a notion as startling to her as it is to the audience. Or the scene in The Player (1992) when Tim Robbins’ unflappable Hollywood executive reveals the rage beneath his cucumber cool by bashing a screenwriter’s head on the sidewalk. Even at their darkest, moments like these create an enthralling double vision-a contrast between what the character was a moment ago and is now-that speaks to life’s mysterious, transformative flow. Now, in SHORT CUTS (R), his majestic 3-hour-and-7-minute epic, Altman creates a feast of such moments. Freely adapted from nine short stories and one poem by the late Raymond Carver (with one new, original story), this movie about a pack of wayward, boisterous, spiritually hungry characters in contemporary suburban Los Angeles is tremendous fun to watch-it’s as jampacked with eccentric human drama as the wildest soap opera-yet what’s most extraordinary about it is how many of its scenes hit us with the intimate force of revelation. No doubt about it: This is Altman working at the transcendent peak of his powers, creating a movie that, in its richness and scope, its dazzling emotional sprawl, asks to be measured against his greatest achievement, Nashville. Here, once again, Altman weaves the experiences of more than 20 characters into a narrative crazy quilt, a vibrant cinematic metaphor for America’s democratic soul. Altman doesn’t make the mistake of getting mired in Carver’s minimalist gloom. He uses the stories for their compact, enigmatic structure- the sense of moral question marks hovering in the background-but the film’s ebullient, imperially amused tone is vintage Altman, the voice of an artist too intoxicated by life to be a cynic and too worldly-wise not to be. Most of the characters are white middle-class married couples swimming against the current of fate, age, and their own petty, squalid compulsions. An arrogant policeman (Tim Robbins) lies to his wife (Madeleine Stowe) about his restless womanizing. His fabrications are so transparent that, instead of getting angry, she laughs in outraged amazement, knowing he’ll always come home. A hotshot pilot (Peter Gallagher) sneaks into the house of his soon-to- be-ex-wife (Frances McDormand) and gleefully destroys every item of furniture. A yuppie physician (Matthew Modine)-smooth and solicitous in the hospital, edgy and remote at home-sits in his living room trying for the umpteenth time to goad his artist wife (Julianne Moore) into owning up to an adulterous tryst. Unable to stand his ragging, she does confess, standing exposed (literally) before him, the story tumbling out in a wail as cathartic as it is desperate. A bored housewife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works as a phone- sex operator out of her living room, looking after her toddlers with a blank stare as she whispers dirty nothings. Meanwhile, her husband (Chris Penn) gazes on mystified, wondering why he can’t get her to talk that way to him. Altman interlaces these stories with such wondrous dexterity that, simply as a formal achievement-a tapestry of moods-the picture is spellbinding. Though Short Cuts hooks us from its opening frames, its atmosphere of intermingled hope and dread doesn’t really kick in until a little boy (Zane Cassidy) is hit by a car on his way to school. As the boy lies in a coma, his shell-shocked parents (Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell) hovering over his hospital bed, Altman orchestrates the catastrophe with such a potent sense of metaphysical unease (was it a random accident or some ineffably cruel cosmic joke?) that a note of quiet dismay seems to spread underneath all that follows. What unites everyone on screen is a feeling of restless, inchoate yearning. Snapping at their spouses for sins more imagined than real, boozing at every opportunity (the invisible-because-it’s-right-under- your-nose prevalence of heavy drinking is one of the film’s key motifs), screwing around, or-in the shockeroo climax-erupting into a rage that’s all the more frightening for not being psychotic, the characters in Short Cuts are consumed with trying to make the world mesh with their fantasies; about all that keeps them rooted is the lingering prospect of calamity. When Altman is cooking on all burners, his movies are driven by an almost mystical sense of coincidence and discovery. Characters who appeared loutish or insensitive are suddenly revealed to be the opposite. Tragedy comes ricocheting out of nowhere, and a world that seemed to be falling apart suddenly pulls itself together. What makes the shifts convincing is the astonishing full-bodiedness of the characters, which stems from Altman’s genius for matching performers to their roles. In Short Cuts the actors appear to be drawing on the subtlest aspects of their own personalities. After a while, you find yourself responding less to what the characters do than to simply who they are-whether it’s Annie Ross, with her broken-down hauteur, as a drunken jazz singer who inadvertently makes a martyr out of her cellist daughter (Lori Singer); the wounded radiance of Anne Archer as a woman who can’t accept the fact that her husband (Fred Ward), while off fishing, failed to report the discovery of a young woman’s corpse for three days; Lyle Lovett’s boyish, deadpan inscrutability in the role of an overworked baker who turns comically nasty and then touchingly generous; or the becalmed decency of Bruce Davison as he watches his son in intensive care. As Davison’s estranged father, who shows up in the hospital and launches into a dithering confessional monologue, Jack Lemmon displays a narcissistic desperation worthy of a Tennessee Williams creation. Scored to a series of acrid, moody jazz-pop numbers, Short Cuts lacks the exultant highs of Nashville; its tone is darker, more somberly controlled. At 68, Altman is more willing than ever before to see America as a society wallowing in confusion, loss, fatally missed connections. At times, the film suggests a cross between Nashville and that middlebrow soaper Grand Canyon-a portrait of a nation grasping for meaning in an era of chaotic decline. Yet has there ever been a filmmaker who loved his characters as passionately as Robert Altman does? Even when the people in Short Cuts are in emotional tatters, they’re thrillingly alive. The film’s bittersweet soul is incarnated in the song Annie Ross performs about being a ”prisoner of life.” Altman’s characters are all prisoners of life. Watching Short Cuts, you’re grateful to be a fellow inmate. A
Genre: Drama, Comedy; Starring: Andie MacDowell, Tim Robbins, Bruce Davison, Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Frances McDormand, Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Chris Penn, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits; Director: Robert Altman; Author: Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt; MPAA Rating: R
Posted October 1 1993 — 12:00 AM EDT
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