Combustible Celluloid
Own it:
Search for Posters
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Anne Archer, Bruce Davison, Robert Downey Jr.,
Written by: Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt, based on stories by Raymond Carver
Directed by: Robert Altman
MPAA Rating: R for graphic sexual language, and for nudity
Running Time: 183
Date: 09/05/1993

Short Cuts (1993)

4 Stars (out of 4)

L.A. Stories

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Robert Altman revisited Nashville territory, and surpassed it, with this 1993 masterpiece. In his popular 1975 favorite, he told a bittersweet ensemble story set in and around a music festival, and neatly summed it up with a single tragic event that united all the characters. But with Short Cuts, he attempted something braver and more elusive, to capture a mood, a vain search for something intangible and meaningful. This time the film's closing scene was far less conclusive; now it merely jarred the characters back to square one.

Robert Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt started with nine short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver, arguably one of the 20th century's greatest American literary masters (1939-1988). Rather than simply adapting them to film, they filtered the stories through a new sensibility, through a specific cinematic world and through Altman's own personal vision. On top of this they added a muted, slurred jazz score and a few other thematic elements, and they were good to go.

The film criss-crosses the characters from the nine stories and at times, fuses them with characters from other stories. Most of the film's couples are feuding or cheating on each other, while most characters are depressed and drink too much (as did Carver), while avoiding reality.

Kicking off the film, a series of planes roar over Los Angeles, spewing chemicals to kill the medflies (does anyone remember those?).

Three fishermen (Fred Ward, Huey Lewis and Buck Henry) discover a dead body in a stream and decide to leave it while they continue fishing. A Hollywood makeup artist (Robert Downey Jr.) and his girlfriend (Lili Taylor) take care of a neighbor's apartment for a month. Their best friends (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn) are employed as a phone sex worker and a pool cleaner.

A waitress (Lily Tomlin), married to a drunken limo driver (Tom Waits), accidentally runs over a little boy with her car. The little boy goes into the hospital, worrying his parents (Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison) and bringing the boy's grandfather (Jack Lemmon) back into the picture after years of absence. A chef (Lyle Lovett) who has baked a cake for the boy's upcoming birthday party keeps calling and keeps getting the runaround.

One of the fishermen (Ward) and his wife (Anne Archer) are goaded into dinner with a couple they've just met (Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine). The husband (Modine) also happens to be the doctor in charge of the little boy.

A motorcycle cop (Tim Robbins) is cheating on his wife (Madeleine Stowe) with another woman (Frances McDormand), who is in the process of splitting up with her testosterone-fueled pilot husband (Peter Gallagher). Finally, a jazz singer (Annie Ross), who provides most of the melancholy tunes for the film's soundtrack, lives in an alcoholic stupor with her depressed, beautiful, cello-playing daughter (Lori Singer).

Juggling all these storylines and keeping them clear is an achievement in itself, but Altman and Barhydt manage constantly clever and powerful ways to edit, visually moving from sequence to sequence, and perfectly sustaining the film's mood throughout. They are faithful to Carver, but true to themselves.

Unlike Nashville, Short Cuts has no easy point or message. It's a big movie about a small world, where we get up every morning, search for ways to make ourselves happy and try to avoid the ugly things. Sometimes the search itself turns into an ugly thing. And that's life.

The Criterion Collection has done another superb job with their 2004 DVD, released in conjunction with Altman's Secret Honor and "Tanner '88." This two-disc set comes with a reprint of the 1993 paperback containing the stories and the poem used for the film. The liner notes contain a new review by Michel Wilmington. The movie itself couldn't look or sound better; the hazy Hollywood colors are rendered with perfect clarity and the sound is flawless. The first disc comes with two sound mixes, plus a music-only audio track. Disc two comes with a slew of featurettes, including a new conversation between Altman and Tim Robbins, a feature-length making-of documentary, a PBS documentary on Carver's life, a BBC special about the Short Cuts screenplay, a radio interview with Carver, a couple of deleted scenes, and original recordings of the music tracks used in the film. Finally, we get a poster gallery that contains a fascinating display of the various attempts at posters and marketing materials.

Movies Unlimtied