Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Classic Throwback: Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)

Short Cuts is a 1993 American drama directed by Robert Altman. It is inspired by nine short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver, with Altman and Frank Barhydt collaborating to write the screenplay. The film traces the actions of twenty-two principle characters throughout Los Angeles, both in parallel and at occasional loose points of connection. The role of chance and luck is central to the film, and many of the stories concern infidelity. Short Cuts won the Golden Lion and the Volpi Cup for Best Ensemble Cast at the Venice Film Festival, while Altman was nominated for Best Director at the 1993 Academy Awards. He would lose to Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List.

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


  1. I saw this one years ago and made such a small impression on me that I forgot Robert Downey Jr. was in it until I read your review.

    I don't want to use lazy, because I don't think that's right, but it felt so laid back it almost became utterly lifeless.

  2. I remember liking this film. I should revisit it, though, it's been years.

  3. @ Nick - Yeah, I think you're right. It's just never engaging, at all. A film like Magnolia, for example, features a number of interesting and well written characters and it becomes increasingly engaging as the film progresses. The length is never an issue. I never got that sense here. None of the stories were remotely interesting, and his direction seemed lax.

    @ Vik - I have grown to become an Altman fan, but I have seen that he is capable of some bad films, too. This likely isn't one of his worst, but it doesn't get anywhere near the heights of his work in the 70's or The Player, which was released a year earlier than this. Disappointing!

  4. hey andy i know exactly what you mean. though the first time i saw it i enjoyed it because i was just in love with Altman, when i rewatched it recently i was more than a little bored by it to the point where i didnt feel the need to finish having already seen it.

    i did however really enjoy the Carver short stories that they put together in conjunction with this film, for me they are recommended reading without a shadow of a doubt.

    i didn't know that about jindabyne, i may actually have to get around to seeing it now.

  5. Jesus, am I the only person who really liked this movie? I liked it enough to buy the Criterion DVD, and I've seen it twice. While it isn't anywhere near the same league as the film it inspired, Paul Thomas Anderson's MAGNOLIA, it's still a really decent movie. I enjoyed it immensely.

  6. @ Toby - Yeah I was really bored. As soon as the fishing story started I was reminded of Jindabyne (with Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney), but I found this to be tough going. I didn't hate the film, because I greatly admire Altman's style and ability to seamlessly weave a huge number of characters together. Though these characters were regular people, they just weren't engaging (or likable). I mean, Tim Robbins was a massive douchebag, and Andie McDowell was horrendous.

    @ Tyler - It's certainly no MAGNOLIA, but few films are. I'm sure there are plenty out there who enjoy the film, but for me, it doesn't rank amongst Altman's best films and it's a film I have no desire to check it out again. It's in your Top 100 isn't it? Interesting. Thanks for the comment, man!