Short Cuts is about a weekend in Los Angeles. It’s a Robert Altman ensemble piece with twenty-two principle characters (though at least six of them are questionable–it really has three stories and then some tangents). It’s “based on the ‘writings’ of Raymond Carver” (emphasis mine), but I’m pretty sure it’s just an adaptation of his seminal work, If You Don’t Take Your Husband As is, He’ll Just Have to Rape and Murder a Young Woman and It Will Be Your Fault. Oh, wait, Altman actually strips the humanity out of Carver and leaves these dry husks and mixes them all up to make nine separate works fit into one three hour movie.
The first and third hours of Short Cuts have this Altman zooming in and cutting to a related image thing going. The first hour it’s mostly for fun–Altman likes to cynically mock the mundanity of his characters. Sisters Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore are both eating the same peanut butter in between cuts, for example. It’s cute, though when they have a scene together later and apparently aren’t even close enough to have talked about their sex lives since Stowe got married. Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt do this thing where about half the dialogue is pure exposition. Frankly, as an adaptation of Carver–and I know I jumped topics but I want to be done talking about the writing and the adapting and just deal with the result. So I’ll get it out of my system. Short Cuts feels like Robert Altman discovered Raymond Carver in The New Yorker; you don’t get to be performatively trite with Raymond Carver.
Now then. The three stories.
Lily Tomlin hits little kid, little kid goes to the hospital. Little kid’s parents are Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison. Little kid is asleep for most of the Short Cuts weekend. Like, unconscious, hospitalized. Cue drama for MacDowell and Davison. Jack Lemmon shows up as Davison’s dad. Tom Waits is Tomlin’s husband. Oh, and Tomlin gets away with it. Throw in Lyle Lovett pointlessly shit-calling MacDowell over the little kid’s missed birthday cake order.
MacDowell has absolutely nothing to do until the end of the movie when she gets her big moment and it’s bad. She’s not good, but you feel kind of bad for her because Altman gives her absolutely nothing to do. She’s supposed to smile and occasionally be sad and confused. She might have Short Cuts’s worst part. Terrified, grieving mother is apparently less interesting than Davison and Lemmon’s hospital reunion.
Davison is kind of weak until Lemmon shows up and when Lemmon’s trying to gaslight Davison about the past–performative gas lighting, in the way only Lemmon can do when he’s playing skeevy. Altman knows how to use some of these actors, just not enough of them. Anyway. Davison has no dialogue but he listens to the whole thing and you can just see the thoughts. It’s amazing. And makes up for the story monologue itself being poorly written. Lemmon’s performance has its ups and downs, but the downs are when Altman pushes too hard. Lemmon and MacDowell is going to fall apart because of their weak parts, but Lemmon on his own for thirty seconds, talking to background players? It’s awesome. MacDowell doesn’t actually get as much to do in the film as Lemmon and he’s only in it for the second hour. He appears out of nowhere and literally walks off into the sunset when he leaves.
As for Tomlin and Waits… she’s a waitress, he’s a drunken limo driver. They’re married. After she hits the kid apparently they have a fight worse than most of their fights and he leaves. They’re sort of a subplot of Story One. Then it turns out Tomlin’s daughter–who Waits only assaulted once, we’re reassured–is Lili Taylor, who’s in the sub-story. Because the thing about Short Cuts and its size is it’s too big. It’s padded. It’d be a lot better if it were an hour shorter.
Story Two. Tim Robbins is a cop with a wife, Stowe, and three kids. He’s having an affair and is generally a shit. Robbins is having the affair with Frances McDormand, who’s got a son with ex-husband Peter Gallagher; Gallagher is kind of stalking McDormand because she’s sexually active post-divorce. He’s not concerned about the kid, which is sort of refreshingly cynical, just kind of terrorizing McDormand for having sex. Stowe doesn’t get anything to do in her part of the story except know about Robbins’s affair and tell sister Moore about it.
Robbins is bad. He’s this nice guy pretending to be mean. I mean, he’s just supposed to be sort of harmless. Short Cuts is so trite. It’s so trite. It pretends to be mean but it’s so shallow. In the last third, those Altman zoom ins and cuts aren’t for cynical humor, they’re to cut away from moments of emotional tragedy. Altman’s narrative distance in this thing is a joke. He exploits the characters, he exploits the actors, he exploits the audience.
Stowe’s great. McDormand’s great. Gallagher’s good but maybe a scene away from greatness. He and McDormand have very little to do in the film except orbit Robbins and provide filler. Short Cuts’s L.A. is real small.
Story Three is Moore and husband Matthew Modine. Modine’s also background in Story One, but he doesn’t get a lot to do until the end of the second hour so he needs to be somewhere else. Moore’s a successful painter. Emotive nudes. Modine’s a doctor. He’s a jerk and frigid. She’s discontent but enthusiastic. They meet another couple–Anne Archer and Fred Ward–and want to get together. Or something. The first hour is so dripping in Altman’s condescending cynicism towards the characters he sometimes makes too much of a narrative slip and covers it with goop. Some casual racism, for example. Altman uses casual racism throughout Short Cuts to change up a moment. He tries it with class stuff, but usually he just likes the casual racism.
It’s so painfully cheap.
Anyway. Moore’s good, not great. She does get a better monologue than most and Altman wants to go for some nudity symbolism with her–lots of not sexy-time nudity in Short Cuts, but nothing compared to Moore’s monologue scene. He’s guilting the audience in wanting the scene to succeed for Moore’s sake. The scene doesn’t succeed. Maybe because Moore’s playing off a wooden Matthew Modine. Because Modine’s doctor is the biggest jerk in the known universe. But, you know, Moore still should be a better wife to him. Because he suspects she’s cheated on him. Sort of. Not really though. He’s a dick from the opening titles, which run twelve minutes, and Altman and his editors use to sort of ashcan the film. It’s an introduction; a manipulative one.
Meanwhile, Archer and Ward have some kind of bliss. She’s a professional clown, he’s out of work though they still live comfortably. Except their cars. His unemployment isn’t an issue until hour three and the car thing only comes up directly then. Before it’s just a detail in the scene where Robbins pulls her over and tries to pick her up and apparently steals her driver’s license.
Because, again, Shorts Cuts is way too big. Okay. Almost done. The sub-stories. Lori Singer and Annie Ross. They live next door to Story One but Ross doesn’t even know there’s a little kid there. Singer is a cellist who spends the rest of her time playing basketball with a multicultural group of young men. They play basketball at her house, this gaggle of men, yet serve no purpose other than to provide background and imply depth. Implied depth should be Short Cuts’s subtitle. Singer’s dad killed himself, Ross is her mom. Ross is a drunk jazz singer who performs at the bar where a handful of the characters show up. Exploitative sadness, melodrama, and nudity take place.
Ross is kind of great for hours one and two then weak in hour three. It’s the part as written but still. Short Cuts’s characters are so obnoxious, you have a limit. Lemmon gets off easy, for instance. Though Stowe gets through most of it. Only because she gets almost nothing to do in hour three.
The second sub-story, and the biggest one, is the one with Taylor. She’s married to Robert Downey Jr. and their best friends are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn. Leigh and Penn are married. Everyone’s got to be married in Short Cuts because otherwise Altman’s points wouldn’t be so stunning. They’re housesitting–Taylor and Downey–and they’re potheads and there’s an implication Downey’s either cheating on Taylor or he’s trying to do so at every opportunity. Leigh is a phone sex worker. Penn is a pool cleaner (to MacDowell, in fact). Even though she’s probably making a lot more money than him, her work is bothering him and he’s reaching his breaking point. This emasculation cannot stand.
Taylor’s weak. It’s a lame part, but she’s weak. Downey’s weak. Lame part, but he’s still weak. Leigh’s capable in a lame part but she’s not exactly good. Altman and Barhydt require logic to last as long as the scene and not in-between them. Altman acts like bad exposition cancels out weak acting just because it “says” something. Penn’s good in the first couple scenes but once he becomes a crazed sex fiend, he’s pretty lame. Again, Altman’s not there for him. He’s not there for any of these actors. He’s at least there for Singer and Ross. Not these ones though.
Sub-story three is Fred Ward, Buck Henry, and Huey Lewis go fishing. Ward’s going to bring the fish to dinner at the Modine and Moore party he and Archer have planned. Look at how it all comes together. Like a glove. They go to the fishing spot, they find a dead body, they spend a day fishing around the body. Gives Altman a lot of opportunity to fetishize the submerged nude female corpse; he’s making a point about nudity, after all. It’s all so provocative.
Henry’s creepier than hell, which doesn’t seem to be the intention, but he’s playing it like a serial killer. Lewis just seems amused to actually have gotten cast in a Robert Altman movie. This story ties back into Story Three when Archer finds out about it, but it’s inconsequential except as filler. Oh, and so Altman can make the queen mother of false equivalences with a scene between Taylor and Henry regarding the objectification of dead bodies. It’s all so provocative.
Altman’s contention the viewer needs to decide the relevance is once thing, but when he ceases to provide the content needed to decide that relevance–or even bother to consider it–the ball is back in Altman’s court. If you want to do the Raymond Carver Extended Universe, you need to be doing something amazing. And Short Cuts isn’t doing anything amazing. I mean, I guess it’s making a Mark Isham score seem positively hip in comparison, but it’s not doing anything else amazing. Walt Lloyd’s Panavision photography is fine. It’s kind of dull, but not offensively. Geraldine Peroni’s editing is a little on the nose. Altman relies heavily on it to try to get through narrative rough patches, but Peroni can’t save it.
Because Short Cuts can’t need saving. Altman and Barhydt’s script gets shockingly cheap in the third hour. Shockingly. And Lemmon’s monologue is pretty cheap too–I mean, Lemmon’s delivery and Davison’s reaction save it, but it’s not uncheap. It’s just beautifully acted cheap. The third hour is just cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s the cheaper chicken.
You can’t save that level of cheapness. Nothing can. And even as the third hour drags, Altman still finds new ways to get even cheaper.
He’s pretty good at being cheap, but not for three hours.
Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Altman and Frank Barhydt, based on short stories by Raymond Carver; director of photography, Walt Lloyd; edited by Geraldine Peroni; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by Cary Brokaw; released by Fine Line Features.
Starring Andie MacDowell (Ann Finnigan), Bruce Davison (Howard Finnigan), Jack Lemmon (Paul Finnigan), Madeleine Stowe (Sherri Shepard), Tim Robbins (Gene Shepard), Julianne Moore (Marian Wyman), Matthew Modine (Dr. Ralph Wyman), Anne Archer (Claire Kane), Fred Ward (Stuart Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lois Kaiser), Chris Penn (Jerry Kaiser), Robert Downey Jr. (Bill Bush), Lili Taylor (Honey Bush), Lily Tomlin (Doreen Piggot), Tom Waits (Earl Piggot), Frances McDormand (Betty Weathers), Peter Gallagher (Stormy Weathers), Annie Ross (Tess Trainer), Lori Singer (Zoe Trainer), Buck Henry (Gordon Johnson), Huey Lewis (Vern Miller), and Lyle Lovett (Andy Bitkower).