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SHORT CUTS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis
Director:  Robert Altman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  183 Minutes
Release Date:  November 16, 2004

"How's the war going?"

"Bad guys are winning."

Film **

Short Cuts is a movie that succeeds as an impressive technical achievement but that almost completely fails as entertainment. 

It was considered Robert Altman's most ambitious picture to date in 1993, and that's saying a lot considering he's the man who made M*A*S*H and Nashville.  His previous movie The Player had re-established him as a marketable director after a decade of flying underneath the radar, and he parlayed that into making the film he'd been wanting to do for some time; namely, a celluloid meditation on the short stories of Raymond Carver.

Though he would use Carver's text as a jumping off point, Short Cuts seems pure Altman from start to finish.  The northwest settings were changed to Los Angeles, many of the blue collar characters elevated to higher social strata, and multiple stories interwoven a la Nashville in an attempt to make one cohesive novel of a film.

But unlike his great masterpiece of the 70s, which at the time was an enthralling, original piece of cinema, Short Cuts seems more like an attempt to relive old glories.  Altman's technical prowess is still intact; he controls his many diverse elements like a master conductor with a big orchestra in front of him.  The problem is, just because he gets a great performance out of every instrument doesn't mean he makes cohesive music.

Despite a three hour plus running time, we don't get very close to any of the 23 main characters.  There is little to no development here.  Most of them are unpleasant and unlikable, and you don't feel like you're sharing their experiences so much as being trapped by them.  Altman has a penchant for turning actors loose and using them in a symbiotic search for truth, but in this movie, he stumbles on it only rarely.

There is really only one compelling storyline, when parents played by Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison learn their small child was hit by a car on his way to school.  When the picture focuses on their grief and worry, and we get caught up in what the outcome of the boy's story will be, the movie works its best magic.

A second viewing of the film confirmed my initial suspicion, which is that everything else that plays in it seems like a distraction from a core story.  Characters wander in and out of each other's experiences for no reason other than to try and create cohesion artificially, but it's like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture.  For example, Anne Archer's character is a clown.  Why?  No other reason, as Altman even admits, other than to get her into the hospital and briefly into other existing story threads.

The script plays less like the nine stories and one poem by Raymond Carver it's purported to be from and more like a collection of scenes written specifically as acting exercises.  Monologues and dialogues seem to exist only to give the very capable cast material to work with.  Certain aspects seem totally random for emotional effect...as if someone said "okay, now do the scene, but this time, play it like the guy you're talking to you assaulted you sexually once upon a time."  It lets qualified actors have moments to shine, but it has all the emotional impact of a college drama class textbook.

Jack Lemmon has a great monologue that is one of the highlights of the movie as far as a pure moment goes, but it neither leads into nor out of anything.  Bits of drama are hinted at, such as an accident his son once had, but they're never explored...again, it felt like little bits of business were thrown in so the actors could shift gears and work out their crafts. 

But as I said, the main problem is that too many of the characters aren't likable, and three hours is a long time to be stuck with them.  Tim Robbins plays a cop who wears his uniform like a big codpiece, Matthew Modine overacts as an uptight doctor, Lori Singer plays the cello beautifully, but after multiple viewings, I still have no clue what the hell her character is supposed to be about, Annie Ross does the over-the-hill nightclub singer time and time again, and Lyle Lovett does his bit as a baker who turns to harassing phone calls when a cake doesn't get picked up.

Some moments are so outrageous that they keep you at even more of a distance.  Peter Gallagher makes a point that half of his ex-wife's (Frances McDormand) house is his by destroying everything in it with a chainsaw, though he manages to stop the mayhem long enough for a free carpet shampoo.  Jennifer Jason Leigh does phone sex in her home, and though I've never called a 900 number myself, I think I'd have a hard time enjoying it with the sounds of small children and a grumpy husband (Chris Penn) constantly in the background...talk about spoiling the moment.  There's humor in these conceptions, to be sure, but is the film trying to seriously explore human nature and interaction, or is it merely interested in going for the cheap laughs?  Just one of the movie's many identity crises.

One of the characters ponders some paintings and wonders if nudity is what makes them art.  One could ask the same question about Short Cuts, which may have more full frontal nudity than any non-porn film in recent memory, and for absolutely no purpose whatsoever.  Frances McDormand, Madeleine Stowe, Lori Singer and Julianne Moore are all lovely ladies who had the courage to bear all for the camera...I just wish I could have felt there was a better reason for them to do so other than pleasing Robert Altman.  Hell, even Huey Lewis "whips it out" so we can see him peeing in a stream.  I could have gone the rest of my life without watching that.

Altman's skill as a technical filmmaker is finely honed here, and the general lack of intriguing storylines invites his fans to step back and marvel at the camerawork (especially the long take with a telephoto lens in which the kid gets hit by the car) and the taut editing, which gives the movie a genuine sense of rhythm and pacing.  But it's all style and no substance; all beat and no melody.

I love Robert Altman overall, but he sometimes comes across as a Fellini-esque director who buckles under the weight of his own excesses.  Nashville was an ambitious, multi-storied and multiple character experiment that worked beautifully.  Short Cuts seems like an attempt to repeat the experiment without getting the same results.  A side by side study of the two films might be interesting for students to dissect why one went so right and another went so awry.

Video ****

Criterion scores with a winning anamorphic transfer...and even though I'm not one of the film's bigger fans, I do appreciate getting to see it at home in its proper scope ratio.  Robert Altman is a man who uses widescreen canvases not for action and scenery, but for character space and relations, and this DVD allows viewers to contemplate the full scope of his vision.  Colors are vibrant and beautiful throughout, with plenty of detail coming through, crisp clean images, and no undue grain or noticeable artifacts despite the lengthy running time...a superb effort.

Audio ***1/2

The new 5.1 mix is lively.  Though mostly dialogue oriented, there are some great sequences such as the helicopters in the beginning and the many musical bits from night club jazz to classical strings that keep the surround channels humming along nicely.  Spoken words are clean and clear and dynamic range is formidable.  The original stereo track is also included for purists, but the 5.1 is definitely the better way to go.

Features ****

No short cuts were taken by Criterion in this department; they've presented one of the year's finest DVD offerings.  The best extra is actually one not on the disc itself; it's a special book collection of the nine stories and one poem by Raymond Carver used in the scripting of the movie.  For fans of Carver who miss his presence in the film, this terrific edition will remind you of his genius.

The first disc contains an isolated music track...there's no commentary by Altman, but that doesn't bother me; I've listened to just about every Altman commentary available on DVD, and he's not the most informative or interesting artist to listen to on a play-by-play basis.

The second disc is the true treasure trove.  There is a feature length making of documentary done in 1993, a BBC television segment on the movie and one of the stories in particular, a PBS documentary on Raymond Carver, an hour long 1983 audio interview with the author, some demos of the original songs performed by Dr. John, three deleted scenes (considering the length of the movie, I was surprised to learn anything was actually cut!), and an extensive look at the marketing, featuring many poster concepts, teaser and theatrical trailers, and several TV spots.

The best part for me was a new 2004 conversation between Tim Robbins and Robert Altman, which covers a great deal of good information about the making of the movie and Altman's techniques with actors and scripts.  It has all the juice you'd want from a commentary track packed into a convenient half hour format.

Summary:

Short Cuts has many admirers, and if you're one of them, this is definitely one of the best DVD releases of the year.  I'm not a fan, but even so, I'm more than impressed by this outstanding Criterion edition.

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