Saturday, June 13, 2009

Great Films: Short Cuts (1993)

Directed by Robert Altman

After a brilliant run in the 70's, Altman had a laborious run of mediocre films in the 1980's (realistically, his best film of that decade is actually Fool For Love by default). In 1992, Altman had just released The Player, which not only got him his third Best Director Oscar nomination, but re-injected Altman into the pantheon of great filmmakers. It was the next year, though, Altman released a nearly three-hour film, based on a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver. Following the meandering, intertwining lives of numerous high-brows and low-lives in Suburban Southern California, Short Cuts is one of Altman's most fully-realized films, and one of the greatest films of the 1990's.

The story follows numerous characters, just like Altman likes it. There is never a point where one particular character takes precedence over the others, and they all flow together so smoothly, that it's 183-minute running time seems to breeze by. The themes throughout the film are as black as night, yet are told with such playfulness, that the film could almost be mistaken as a comedy. In the tradition of his films like Nashville and M*A*S*H, the insecurities and the terrors of the characters expose themselves through eccentricities and inadvertent dialogue, and never lend themselves to melodrama if they can help it.

Among the characters, there is television columnist (Bruce Davison) and his simple wife (Andie McDowell) whose son is hit by a car by a ne'er-do-well waitress (Lily Tomlin). The waitress has an on-again, off-again relationship with an alcoholic limo driver (Tom Waits), and she's constantly reminded by her daughter (Lili Taylor) that she should move on to someone better. That daughter is married to an idiosyncratic make-up artist (Robert Downey Jr.), and they're best friends with a pool cleaner (Chris Penn), and his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who does side-work as a phone sex operator.

There is also a tempermental police officer (Tim Robbins), who is having an affair with a single mother (Frances McDormand) who, herself, has a meddling ex-husband (Peter Gallagher). The officer is married to an apathetic woman (Madeline Stowe), who takes her husband's affairs in stride. The officer's wife has a sister (Julianne Moore) who is a painter, and married to an emotionless doctor (Matthew Modine). The doctor isn't happy when his wife invites another married couple over for dinner: a blue-collar fisherman (Fred Ward) and a kids-party clown (Anne Archer).

Among the other characters, there is the TV columnist's estranged father (Jack Lemmon), a meddling baker (Lyle Lovett), and the fisherman's two fishing buddies (Buck Henry & Huey Lewis). There is also the story of an aging jazz crooner (Annie Ross), and her troubled daughter (Lori Singer) who plays a rather melancholic cello. There all come together in this film, displaying all types of emotions--mostly despair.

The most interesting aspect of Short Cuts is the usual, cynical tone with which Altman chooses to let the plot points reveal themselves. Things happen, and plot lines overlap so conveniently, that even the most miserable aspects of the stories transition safely into the most hysterical. In a story about suburban malaise, the film does more than just present the boredom of uptown living, but reveals the sting that comes with everyday tragedy.

Of course, the performances within the film are extraordinary. With so many top-notch actors in one film, I'd find it hard for them not to overshadow themselves scene by scene. Instead, they rarely breach outside of the limits of their characters. Probably the biggest star turn in the film comes from Julianne Moore, as a passive-aggressive painter, who has a lot of trouble coming to grips with her crumbling marriage. In a scene of enormous bravery, Moore and Matthew Modine have a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style showdown, where all of the secrets in their relationship are revealed.

Certainly, I could spend all day talking about specific scenes within this movie. It's hard to imagine anybody else making this film as perfectly as Altman did. Under someone else's watch, this could have been a mess of convoluted themes and overdrawn performances. What Altman does that is interesting, is he says shutzpah to thematic storytelling, and forces the audience to think about the characters' actions. Look at what they do, don't think about why they do it, and let yourself drown in the great acting and storytelling.

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