Short Cuts

Robert Altman’s greatest film is quite easily Short Cuts, which combines his sloppy, fly-on-the-wall filmmaking approach with Raymond Carver’s poignant short stories about human drama to create the ultimate version of what Altman did his whole life- observe the modern human comedy with a detached, and slightly ironic, tone.

There are so many brilliant performances and memorable characters in these interwoven stories, I’m not sure where to start. Tom Waits as a booze-ridden limo driver. Lily Tomlin as his burnt-out waitress wife. Lili Taylor as her sweet and overwhelmed daughter, married to an unfaithful makeup artist in Robert Downey Jr. They’re friends with Chris Penn, a sexually frustrated pool cleaner, and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who makes money as a phone sex operator while she changes diapers. They are all perfectly matched with their roles.

But wait, there’s more- you also get Tim Robbins as a stereotypical douchebag of a cop, his poor wife, Madeline Stowe, who is perennially one-step-away-from-divorce, her sister, Julianne Moore, who is rich and bored and unhappily married to a doctor, Matthew Modine. Let’s not forget Tim Robbins’ side hustle, Frances McDormand, who is separated from helicopter pilot Peter Gallagher. Modine and Moore meet Anne Archer the clown, and her husband Fred Ward, at a concert featuring Lori Singer, whose mom is Annie Ross, though Ward would rather be fishing with his pals Buck Henry and Huey Lewis. With me so far?

Let’s not forget the vindictive baker, Lyle Lovett, who ends up crossing Bruce Davison and wife Andie McDowell in a major way, or the great Jack Lemmon, who steals every scene he’s in with a career topping performance as Davison’s hapless dad. Everyone is white and living in a Los Angeles where African Americans and Mexicans are relegated to the sidelines, but unlike other ensemble films probing similar territory (like The Big Chill) you actually care about these people, because Carver & Altman are just so damn good with their craft.

Short Cuts is the spirit of 70’s Hollywood briefly rising out of the muck in the corporate 90’s, a final flaring up of Altman brilliance before he overdid it again with Prét á Porter. With a wonderful, loose, jazzy soundtrack full of contributions by Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Michael Stipe, Dr. John, Doc Pomus and more, Short Cuts is one of the few films you can watch over and over and over without it getting stale. Every scene oozes with great actors and great music intertwined. How is this one unavailable in the US of A?

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