Where Were They Then?: Short Cuts (93, B)

Why this film?: My original choice was Aeon Flux, purely because I wanted to see McDormand in a ridiculous getup that made her look a lot like St. Vincent (can you believe her other collaboration with Charlize Theron in 2005???) but that stopped feeling like a worthwhile reason pretty quickly. I’ve already watched the Coen brothers movies where they were smart enough to give her a major role, and seeing anyone as talented as she is work with Robert Altman is a pretty enticing prospect.

The film: There’s something disorganized about Short Cuts, something present from the moment it starts. Names of cast members fly across the screen, appearing indiscriminate of star power or screen time or alphabetical order, moving in random directions and in different colors. The opening credits has three different soundtracks playing at different times, one an indistinct jazz riff while the other two are musical performances taking place in the diegesis. These credits are paired with five helicopters flying in the night sky, and give way completely to dialogue scenes introducing several of the film’s major characters. Seeing Short Cuts as in syncopation with jazz is an intriguing perspective, where its structure and incidents feel even more free-flowing and less obviously connected than in Nashville or Gosford Park, though not in a good way. The wholesale adaptation of multiple Raymond Carver stories feels like the other major key to understanding the film, which feels like so many A-plots cramped up against each other without much room to breathe. Still, what’s most disarming is that Altman’s typical gifts for captivating tableaus within offhanded observations, direction of ensemble, and finding rich insight from character behavior and incident all feel stunted in a way they haven’t in other features.

Is it too easy to chalk all this up to the sheer number of Carver stories that Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt have chosen to adapt? Every strand feels like the center of their own world, all these characters crowded together in Short Cuts in a way that Nashville and Gosford Park are able to avoid. In part, those films were internally coherent because they did a better job at establishing setting, and by not giving each character an overt story arc to transpose even as the camera treats everyone equally. L.A. Joan’s boy-crazy wanderings across Nashville, her uncle’s increasingly desperate attempts to get her to visit her aunt in the hospital, and Lady Sylvia’s nighty liaisons with an American valet are all appropriately showcased while staying firmly on the edges of their films, feeding into the overall tapestries without being burdened by requiring a narrative payoff with the heft of the politician’s rally or solving the murder. Short Cuts burdens itself by trying to give so many of its characters full arcs to play out, stretching some threads out so far that their reappearance becomes a chore. A pair of couples played by Chris Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lili Taylor, and Robert Downey Jr. feel particularly stranded from everyone else, so cordoned off to their section of the movie it’s a wonder editor Geraldine Peroni didn’t just excise them out of it. Other characters are threaded in and out of the film more dexterously, but the film’s last moments ring hollow in part because whatever ironies and commentaries we’re supposed to witness in these stories are never as pronounced as they could be.

Altman himself might be part of the problem, or at least a contributor whose best assets don’t serve this material. To me, one of Altman’s greatest gifts is that he doesn’t cruelly judge his characters even as he’s pointing out their contradictions or failings. Anyone is considered valuable and worth his attention, letting the audience feel however we want without guiding our responses. Short Cuts violates this credence in its score and in some of its performances, particularly Tim Robbins’s work as a cheating, possessive husband who can’t make a good excuse to save his life. He’s mining for comedy as much as Mark Isham’s score is whenever Betty Weathers gets into an argument with her husband Stormy, and tries to make us think the spectacle of him destroying her home with a chainsaw while she’s away on vacation with their son is funny to watch. The tone of these moments rings false, but equally odd is the lack of any guidance in several other scenes, like those with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn, where she performs phone sex for a hotline while tending to their children and doing household chores. The image of Leigh feeding her daughter formula, her voice enthusiastically describing how she wants to get fucked while her face is completely focused on her child, is played basically straight by actress and director. It’s her job, of course it’s not going to be treated as odd by the character. But it’s also an absurd and provocative image, and it’s not really treated as such. There’s no underlying logic in how the film chooses which characters to judge or prod harder than others, and it makes Short Cuts seems less cohesive than if it had been more uniformly judgmental of its characters, or than if it had stayed observant in the way so many of Altman’s films are.

There’s an absence of color in these characters and scenarios, some of them more obviously nutty but none of them given the space to be as vibrant as they need to be. What would Pedro Almodóvar’s ideas about melodrama have brought to this story? I can see him finding room for loud characters and even louder aesthetics while letting everyone be as jagged, funny, sad, and perverse as they deserve to be. It’s a wilder interpretation, but one this story might need. The eye of Altman’s camera isn’t able to find many interesting images, in part because the story only hops from one individual or couple or group to the next rather than sifting through crowds or pulling as many character traits out of their environments. Camera movements and distances just make us feel as though we’re voyeurs observing these characters, keeping us firmly outside their experiences even when they’re so obviously fraught. There are some inspired moments, like how Peroni keeps cutting away to Alex Trebek in the audience of a concert after he’s been noticed by Julianne Moore, as though she’s as starstruck by him as anyone else. She does equally good dramatic work cutting between one character nervously recounting hitting a kid with her car while being relieved she’s not being punished for it as the boy passes out at home, his mother desperately trying to wake him up. Within scenes the pacing is fine, but Short Cuts has too much underutilized material to feel like anything except three long hours. There’s none of the roving imagery or dense chatter that make Altman’s other ensemble pictures feel so alive, making everyone feel hermetically sealed in their own segments of Movie, sometimes to be jostled against each other but mostly to suffer alone.

What’s most confusing about all of this is, for the first time in my encounters with Altman’s films, his gift for directing actors feels almost completely absent. The aforementioned quartet of Pine, Leigh, Taylor, and Downey feel so extraneous to the film not just because their story feels the most removed from everything else going onbut because those actors are largely unable to make their characters compelling or solve the inadequacies in Altman’s direction. Their presence never feels justified, making the whole film feel baggier. Tim Robbins is a comparable hindrance in his role, selling his character’s possessiveness but too often selling him out as a joke, to the point that we can’t even give Madeline Stowe credit for recognizing that her husband is having an affair since Robbins makes it so obvious. Even less credible is Andie McDowell in one of the film’s key roles as a mother whose son has fallen into a coma, giving amateurish line readings and coming off as under rehearsed in one of her last big scenes. Squaring off against a man who’s repeatedly harassed her and her husband over the phone, McDowell’s voice goes so high it repeatedly breaks as she unconvincingly attempts to scream out the anguish that has quietly defined her character up till now, flailing with conveying emotions that would’ve second nature for an actress like Jessica Lange. Folks like Stowe, Lily Tomlin, Bruce Davison, Peter Gallagher, and Annie Ross are all perfectly serviceable in their roles, but none of them have added the dimension to their characters an Altman movie demands.

Still, Short Cuts boasts a handful of impressive performances, perhaps not matching up to some of Altman’s best but absolutely worth recognizing on their own merits, providing some desperately needed energy to the movie. Jack Lemmon makes a small, sad impression as a talkative man trying to reconnect with his son while the son’s own child is in a coma. Tom Waits gives a even-keeled, soft-spoken turn as the baker making threatening calls to Andie McDowell’s family at all hours of the day, avoiding turning his character into a horror villain and making his acts of kindness later believable. An unexpected pause before answering an important question makes his response to it more complicated than expected. It’s one thing for Anne Archer to deliver a full character after spending several scenes dressed as a clown, refusing to sell her short even in loaded situations, but she and Fred Ward build a credible marriage that gets morbidly tested after he reveals unexpected details of his latest fishing trip. Her deep sorrow and angry incomprehension of his actions, and his weary, bristling defenses towards her judgements is the film’s strongest acting duet, especially as the two unsubtly take jabs at each other during a barbecue with Matthew Modine and Julianne Moore’s characters. Moore herself is responsible for one of the film’s most bracing moments, revealing a long suspected but previously unadmitted affair to her husband while naked from the waist down. Previously establishing her character as an airy, bohemian artist who may or may not play dumb to avoid confrontations with her husband, it’s frightening to watch her lose her composure completely as she starts screams out the details of her encounter at her husband, hurling her words at him as revenge for making her bring this shit up. Frances McDormand delivers what might be the film’s most consistent performance – if not its best altogether – as an aggrieved single mother who can’t stand her soon to be ex-husband’s invasiveness towards her life without him while gauging how much she wants to commit to a boyfriend she enjoys but knows not to cozy up to completely. She forges a better relationship with her kid than McDowell does, evokes a thorny history with Peter Gallagher’s smirking bastard through the taunts she rises to and how she responds to them, and gets to be sexy and relaxed with this new man while staying on her toes when he starts talking serious talk, all while finding room to slip in jokes and wake up Robbins and Gallagher from inhabiting only one note apiece. It’s an ideal performance, and McDormand’s absence is palpable after her character exits the picture for the second half, returning just in time to catch the ending.

Ultimately, Short Cuts is a perfectly fine but visibly flawed film whose greatest deficit is that it can’t possibly stack up to its creator’s greatest achievements. Impressive moments can’t compensate for its limitations, regardless of the filmography it’s stacked up against, but neither does this diminish its own best assets. It’s best moments and most capable performances are enough to energize Short Cuts, but by the same stroke its worst features are enough to render it inert even when you know it’s trying for something. It’s unevenness isn’t an interesting feature in  the way a lesser but weirder film might be able to claim, but it still fits remarkably well into Altman’s portfolio, a distillation of the kind of film he’s best known for without anything that makes those immortal features as indelible as they are. It’s a wide look at American neuroses and troubles that avoids repeating itself, and though I relish imagining what an even bolder version of this film could look like, not just from someone like Almodóvar but Altman himself, though this may underestimate what a challenging piece Short Cuts already is, regardless of how well those challenges are met. Perhaps it’s a richer film on rewatch, but there are more Altman movies I need to see for the first time, so a rewatch will just have to wait.

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