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‘Short Cuts’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 22, 1993

"Short Cuts" is a cynical, sexist and shallow work from cinema's premier misanthrope, Robert Altman, who here shows neither compassion for -- nor insight into -- the human condition. This long, sour and ultimately pointless film allows Altman, the debunker of Hollywood and Nashville, to put the screws to the common folk of Southern California. He ticks off their failings with the relentless inanity of Andy Rooney on one of his petty riffs.

Basically, Altman's here to tell us that life stinks and there's not a damn thing to be done about it. In so doing, he drops in on the lives of 22 whiny, inert and mostly unlikable characters drawn from the writings of Raymond Carver, the blue-collar Chekhov. Carver, while certainly no naif, had sympathy for his characters and a certain amount of faith in their ability to change, at least marginally.

But Altman, with few exceptions, allows neither growth nor redemption. The characters don't evolve, they just survive, which is fine when it comes to movies about plane crashes, but deadening in terms of domestic dramas -- and "Short Cuts" is made up of nine of these brittle set pieces.

Woven together a la "Nashville," the film's various narratives cross neatly -- occasionally even ingenuously -- if seemingly at random. One of the more appealing characters, a birthday clown played by Anne Archer, picks up a cake at a bakery, where a doting mother (Andie MacDowell) is ordering one for her going-on-8-year-old. Unbeknown to MacDowell, the boy has been hit by a car on the way to school.

The driver, a kind-hearted waitress (Lily Tomlin), is married to an alcoholic chauffeur (Tom Waits), who apparently abused their daughter (Lili Taylor). But Tomlin is true to her trailer park values and stands by her man, a common failing among the film's variously victimized -- and, for chiefly voyeuristic reasons, naked -- women. Julianne Moore, an artist married to a jealous doctor (Matthew Modine), is obliged to play her most pivotal scene nude from the waist down. It goes without saying that nobody in the audience will hear a word she says.

Cheated-on wife Madeleine Stowe, suicidal cellist Lori Singer and divorced trollop Frances McDormand also bare all, while Tomlin's "middle-aged ass" (as one character refers to it) is thoroughly scrutinized by a trio of fishermen (Buck Henry, Fred Ward and Huey Lewis). Later, the same three discover a female corpse -- wearing only high heels -- in their favorite fishing hole. One of them notices her while urinating on her partially submerged, quite beautiful body. After a brief debate, they decide to go on fishing before reporting their discovery to the police.

If Altman finds this behavior contemptible, perhaps he should consider his own contribution to the degradation of women on screen. This doesn't stop with gratuitous nudity, but extends to the female characters' slavish devotion to whoever will have them. Namely, a sociopathic makeup artist (Robert Downey Jr.), a psycho pool man (Chris Penn), a womanizing cop (Tim Robbins) and a vengeful baker (Lyle Lovett).

Of the bunch, only the baker evolves emotionally, thanks to the film's one likable, but most tragically afflicted, couple: MacDowell and her newscaster husband (Bruce Davison), whose son is near death throughout the movie. Davison is one of the few male characters with more than one dimension, as he demonstrates in a deftly acted scene with Jack Lemmon, who is masterly as his insensitive dad. It's one of a handful of emotionally gripping scenes, doubtless because we care about these people.

We do not care about Jennifer Jason Leigh, who spoons mashed peas into the toddlers while simultaneously tending to her telephone sex business. She doesn't much like the pedophiles, but hey, the money's good and she can work at home. Meanwhile, she fails to notice the effect her work is having on the increasingly shaky psyche of her husband (Penn). More dead women to come.

"Short Cuts" is about not noticing the important things in life -- the wife, kids, family pets and the occasional corpse. Essentially, it blames self-absorption for the collapse of Western civilization, a conclusion echoed in the musical stylings of Annie Ross, a jazz singer who can't communicate with her daughter, the depressed cellist (Singer). As Annie croons, "To hell with you. To hell with love." And if you ask me, to hell with Altman.

"Short Cuts" is rated R for violence, nudity, profanity and sexual situations.

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