Small World, Big Differences In Altman's Insightful 'Short Cuts'

Directed by: Robert Altman; Runtime: 188 minutes
Grade: B+

The element that draws most people to an intersecting drama like Robert Altman's Short Cuts can also prove to be its biggest dilemma: the novelty behind how so many different people share connections with one another, the embodiment of the statement: "Small world, huh?" Seeing the ways that disparate individuals come in contact with one another keeps the viewer's mind engaged and curious about what's coming next, but giving these characters too many or too close of those kinds of connections can also lead into doubt over the conceit. It's a tricky balance, especially when trying to give these criss-crossing lives a thematic purpose for doing so, which can potentially twist the premise into a gimmick with a strong, overcompensating message that tries too hard to hold everything together. Director Altman, whose success with personal and interrelated dramas had been responsible for the likes of M*A*S*H and Nashville, soars above such concerns with a vivacious, authentic, and thematically conscientious glimpse at LA's denizens.

Short Cuts spans close to three hours and contains very little that resembles an overarching plot, spreading its focus out among the dozen-plus characters who are eking, surviving, and thriving throughout the city of Los Angeles. The substance, therefore, falls on the nature of their contained subplots, which are too numerous and singular to discuss here without giving things away. Instead, it's easier to run down the types of people bustling around and throughout this adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories, which span from a diner waitress (Lily Tomlin) and a phone-sex operating, stay-at-home mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a promiscuous and demeaning police officer (Tim Robbins) and a happily married broadcast journalist (Bruce Davidson), among many others. The unemployed, underemployed, and comfortably employed go about their day-to-day activities while responding to shifting situations, some of which are more serious and momentous than others, from suspicions of infidelity to unexpected deaths.

Captured by the candid and nuanced eye of Sex, Lies and Videotape and Empire Records cinematographer Walt Lloyd, Short Cuts lives up to its name by briskly jumping between the stories of these individuals, never lingering long enough to overstay its welcome. Director Altman's understanding of the distinctiveness of characters gets challenged by the myriad personalities and the brevity of these vignettes, where he not only has to find common threads between clearly different people, but he also needs to illustrate how a few people involved in similar fields across Los Angeles differ greatly from one another. Even though there's a wide variety and number of characters involved, and even though they fill expected archetypal roles -- musicians and club singers, painters and makeup artists, penniless clowns and limo drivers -- Altman ensures that few of them come across as token stereotypes or superficial entities.

Altman's impeccable eye for casting plays a huge part in the success of Short Cuts, to which he zeroes in on the internal needs of these strained individuals and marries them with the right dramatic souls -- and occasional comedic relief -- projected by the actors. Aside from Tim Robbins' dastardly turn as the cheating cop, also easily the most darkly amusing of the bunch, there's a rather even mix of likable sympathy and detrimental flaws among most of the characters, impacted by their individual moral perceptions, past demons, and personal decisions about how they conduct their lives. They enliven and elevate the observational nature of Carver's writings: artists like Julianne Moore's bottled-up Marian underscore the impassioned origins of her paintings; blue-collar workers like Chris Penn's pool guy Jerry lend a haunting observational eye to the nature of his wife's phone-sex profession; and the wide-eyed, growingly frustrated edge of Madeline Stowe as a housewife reveals much in her turn to nude art modeling as fleeting liberation from her husband's unfaithfulness.

In the above paragraph, you might be able to decipher one of the many intersections found in Short Cuts, which Altman handles with a sort of modestly and carefulness that sidesteps most, if not all, of the pretentious tactics that can plague these kinds of productions. It boils down to the overarching end-game behind these numerous connections: there really isn't one. Some are relatives who trade musings about each other's situations, while others are friends who coax out different behaviors and revealing comments with their conversations. And others, still, are simply strangers who ride up alongside one another ... or, at one point in a bakery, just share the same space with one another without any interaction whatsoever. Altman isn't working toward a big collision point that conjoins everything into a bold dramatic expression; instead, these associations serve a much more earnest purpose by purely deepening the context surrounding these characters, underscoring truths about the kind of people they are and justifying others' impressions of them.

Short Cuts also isn't concerned with hitting its audience over the head with social commentary, either, opting instead to let the nature of these individual stories speak for themselves and make their own points without over-inflating their significance. The themes can be pinpointed without Altman preaching about them or straining the credibility of the "everything's connected" concept, allowing these stories to revolve around the turmoil of infidelity, the toxicity of dishonesty, and the burdens of creative ambition to emerge from the director's candid dramatic orchestrations. A vague notion of existential anxiety and dogged suspicion hovers above Short Cuts, shaken up by a rocky conclusion that attempts to bring those ideas into clearer view, yet that still doesn't serve as the sole, requisite takeaway from Altman's keyhole glimpse into these lives. This can be a small world held together by a lot of complicated threads -- some worn out or taped back together, others that can be permanently severed -- and that's all this poignant gem needs to convey.

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