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‘Short Cuts’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 22, 1993

At the end of the day (and at slightly more than three hours long, this Robert Altman film feels like a day), "Short Cuts" is the movie equivalent of a great read. It's a masterfully conducted concert of characters, with trouble occurring in nine California households, and involving 22 principal characters.

To sum up the episodic, multi-plot labyrinth would be futile. Essentially, it's a modern-day angst movie, with people misunderstanding, resenting, deceiving, disappointing -- and even killing -- one another. In a work this widespread, some plots will be inevitably weaker than others. So to Matthew Modine and Andie MacDowell, I say this: Acting doesn't have to be everything in your life.

But the overall feeling is that Altman, maker of "Nashville" and "The Player," has pulled off another ensemble coup, with supple assistance from Lily Tomlin, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Waits, Bruce Davison, Fred Ward, Robert Downey Jr. and many others.

For maximum enjoyment, "Short Cuts" should not be compared with the Raymond Carver short stories it claims to be adapted from. Carver's stories, set mostly in the Northwest, are deeply sympathetic (and hopeful) portraits of its existentially fractured characters. Altman's movie is a harsh, almost fatalistic overview of modern-day sufferings in the less-exotic suburbs of California.

In the movie's most engaging -- or striking -- stories, chauffeur Waits watches with growly resentment as customers ogle his waitress wife Tomlin; seedy cop Robbins cheats on Madeleine Stowe; Fred Ward goes fishing with buddies Buck Henry and Huey Lewis; and Leigh earns money conducting extremely graphic phone-sex calls as she changes her baby's diapers -- to the open-mouthed horror of husband Chris Penn.

After all the various plots have been introduced, developments (usually negative) cause many of them to intersect. Ward and wife Anne Archer are invited to dinner for the first time with bickering spouses Julianne Moore (who's almost constantly naked) and Modine. It turns out Robbins is having an affair with . . . well, that's for you to find out.

And without giving too much away, there's a particularly touching tragedy which casts a heart-rending pall over everything. It defines the overriding sense of contemporary despair, the way we are at the mercy of lurking calamity. The unfolding of these and other developments (scripted by Altman and Frank Barhydt) is, at times, utterly mesmerizing. You watch enrapt, as these people experience the unrelenting tragicomedy of being alive.

Although the omniscient design of "Short Cuts" is enthralling, it comes up short under close scrutiny. After adroitly introducing us to these characters, Altman dumps their unresolved lives in our laps. In fact, he has to resort to nature's awesome array of tricks to end the drama. Altman does such an impressive directorial job, it cloaks the thematic (and often mean-spirited) emptiness in the film. There's a sense of something important going on, some sort of statement about the American experience. But it's indistinct. That indistinction leads us to believe we are watching something telling and profound.

Altman, who has made a career of pulling the critics and cineastes his way, demonstrates that artistic sleight of hand once again. But even if it is trickery, "Short Cuts" is already head and shoulders above most of the competition. It's a great read.

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