As a directorial achievement, weaving together these loosely interrelating stories, it is another admirable success for Altman, who has formulated a fine ensemble of performers. But on an entertainment level, it is far less effective, and at over three hours, it becomes quite an ordeal. I have read the film described as the “shortest seeming long movie of the 90’s” but I really struggled. The problem is that few of the stories are even remotely interesting, with none of the cast given anything memorable to do. It becomes increasingly frustrating to watch these unlikable characters plagued by varying ordeals and doses of bad luck.
Here are some examples of the characters whose stories thread throughout this tale and the ways they are connected; Jack Lemmon (who gives one of the best performances) is an estranged father who turns up at the hospital to see his son (Bruce Davison), whose own son has just been hit by a car. Lily Tomlin, a waitress married to Tom Waits (who is an alcoholic limo driver), is the one responsible for hitting the boy. A very young Julianne Moore plays an artist, whose marriage to her doctor husband, Matthew Modine, has hit trouble. Jennifer Jason-Leigh is a phone-sex operator who works and feeds her young child simultaneously. Her husband, Chris Penn, is a pool man while his friend, Robert Downey Jr., is a make-up artist. Both aren't particularly nice. Tim Robbins, a cop, is an absolute asshole, while Peter Gallagher's destruction of his wife's home after he discovers she is seeing someone else - Tim Robbins’ character no less - is one of the few amusements.
The tale of the fishermen who find the dead body of a woman floating in a river is by far the most interesting. Rather than report the find, they tie her up and spend the weekend enjoying themselves first. Curiously, this story was re-made and extended for the Australian film, Jindabyne. Largely forgettable, though no doubt influential on filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Short Cuts has a stellar cast and a web of complexities that few directors other than Altman could successful pull off, but there are several bad performances (Andie McDowell) that become distracting, and unlike Nashville and The Player, Altman could not hold my interest.