Title: Short Cuts
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Director: Robert Altman
Music: Mark Isham
Cinematography: Walt Lloyd
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Robert Downey Jr.
The typeface of its opening credits may look unprepossessing to today’s eyes, but Robert Altman’s portmanteau Los Angeles satire, inspired by Raymond Carver’s short stories, retains its abiding allure by presenting a social microcosm weaving through 22 principle characters, among them are eight white heterosexual couples (Altman is Hollywood’s old guard, so diversity and inclusivity are apparently not his forte), one pair is from a prior generation and the rest are 30/40-somethings married/divorced with or without kids, plus an addition of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.
Normalcy on the placid surface is disrupted in the opening sequence where helicopters are crop-dusting over an outlandish medfly quarantine area where our protagonists live, and is further overturned by coursing undertows where streams of (mostly negative) sentiments (displeasure, discomfort, jealousy, contempt, neurosis, paranoia, miscommunication, misapprehension, ill feeling, among others) are simmering, festering and transmuting into accidents, betrayal, suicide, murder, bereavement but also fence-mending and merriment, as life it is.
Naturally, our most worrisome concern is the safety of Howard and Ann Finnigan’s son, who is hit by a car driven by waitress Doreen Piggot (Tomlin), after ostensibly looking fine and refusing Doreen’s request to take him to his parents, he soon falls to a portentous coma in the hospital, which puts Ann (MacDowell) and Howard (Davison), a famous TV commentator through an excruciating wringer, aggravated by the incessant crank calls from a grievance-driven baker Mr. Bitkower (Lovett) and the unbidden visit of Howard’s estranged father Paul (Lemmon).
The doctor who treats the boy in the hospital is Ralph Wyman (Modine), whose wife Marian (Moore) is a painter, they live in a posh residence on the hill with a panoptic view of the area, but Ralph is bedeviled by a persisting idea that Marian has cheated on him. During a cello concert of Zoe Trainer (Singer), they meet another couple Claire and Stuart Kane (Archer and Ward), and offhand decide to invite them for a home barbecue, although Ralph regrets it in afterthought as the Kanes seem to be beneath his middle-class yardstick. In fact, Claire earns her living as a clown and Stuart is currently unemployed, who embarks on a three-day fish trip with his buddies and promises to bring back some spoils for the barbecue, but an accidental if morbid discovery during his jaunt will later cast a shadow over their relationship, a quintessential dichotomy between blokeish inconsideration and feminine sensibility.
Marian’s sister Sherri Shepard (Stowe) is unhappily married to a patrol cop Gene (Robbins), who fools around with a divorcée of easy virtue, Betty Weathers (McDormand), and takes out his frustration and irritation on their family dog, who keeps yapping at him, meanwhile, Betty’s ex-husband Stormy Weathers (Gallagher), what a killer name for a helicopter pilot, keeps tabs on her and exacts his revenge plan when Betty is out of town with another hubby prospect.
Oblivious of the accident’s grave consequence, Doreen eventually reconciles with her old soak husband Earl (Waits) with a renewed feeling of dodging a bullet. Her daughter Honey (Taylor), is married to a make-up artist Bill Bush (Downey Jr.), the Bushes’ best friends are the Kaisers, Jerry (Penn) takes odd jobs and Lois (Leigh), is a skilled phone sex operator who can ambidextrously eroticizing her patron and handling her tot at the same time, their seemingly unflappable equilibrium is betrayed with an unheralded violent act which is concurrently with a seismic disruption near the end, a shudder to accentuate the sense of being alive and kicking, which separates Zoe from her mother Tess (Jazz chanteuse Ross), a cabaret singer and single mother who is too jaded to connect with her unstable daughter.
Ultimately, Altman is a superlative orchestrator of balancing act in conjuring up a kaleidoscopic cross section of a contemporary malaise that scourges the earth, partly owing to editor Geraldine Peroni’s nonpareil adroitness (who is nominated for an Oscar in Altman’s THE PLAYER 1992), every subplot is threaded with precision altogether and every cause-and-effect is divulged with limpid yet eloquent connotation, all on a string of the quirk of fate.
What an ensemble piece! SHORT CUTS is Venice’s Golden Lion winner, an honor shared with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s THREE COLORS: BLUE (1993), and the ensemble cast is fêted with both a Volpi Cup and later a special Golden Globe. But the cherry-pick must be Julianne Moore’s eye-popping derring-do, hardly any Hollywood actress can holds court with her explosion in such a distracting state without leaving a scintilla of self-consciousness, yes, under an intimate context, it is nothing if not verifiable. Second in line are MacDowell’s poignant grief, Leigh’s cavalier lassitude just moments after her feigned lasciviousness and Stowe’s subtle archness cheek by jowl with her smoldering ire. Among the boy’s club, Lemmon has one’s sentimental vote as a loquacious self-defender whose self-centered righteousness is wrong-footed by a dire emergency and Penn ekes out a tangy danger of sexual suppression itching towards a boiling point before he finally snaps, but immediately saved by an earthquake, is that Altmanesque or Carverian?