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Short Cuts

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Short Cuts

Starring: Tim Robbins, Robert Downey Jr.
Director: Robert Altman
Rated: R
RunTime: 189 Minutes
Release Date: October 1993
Genre: Drama

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Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

In my country, TV shows dedicated to seventh art tend to be named after great or popular films. Our national television so far had two such shows - one named after A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS and another named after VERTIGO. Local television in my home town adopted the same practices - for the past five or so years, the movie show is named after SHORT CUTS, 1993 drama by Robert Altman. That film perhaps owes such honour mostly to its "cool" title, but it is nevertheless considered to be the one of the most important and most successful films of early 1990s.

The film is based on the short stories by late American writer Raymond Carver. Script by Altman and Frank Barhydt changed the scenery from Pacific Northwest and brought it to Los Angeles where the plot takes place few days before the earthquake. The film actually lacks the plot in the usual sense of the word - instead there are nine vignettes in which we are introduced to few dozen characters. All of those characters are faced with variety of problems which are difficult but mundane - couple must deal with a death of a child, husband has difficulties accepting his wife as phone sex operator, participants in the fishing expedition must decide whether to spoil their fun by reporting dead body to police etc. Those vignettes are connected through characters from one briefly appearing in another and they would all end with the earthquake at the end of the film.

One of the most popular descriptions of SHORT CUTS is "the shortest 3-hour movie in history". This catchphrase, very popular among 1990s critics, seemed impossible for many of those who followed Altman's career a decade earlier. Once one of the most celebrated directors, Altman was practically exiled from Hollywood in the era of Lucas and Spielberg, since everyone began thinking about his films as "too artsy", "hermetic" and incomprehensible to the average viewer. Altman made a comeback with a style in 1992 and got even with Hollywood establishment by mercilessly satire in PLAYER. One year later, Altman finally got his satisfaction by having one of such "artsy" and "hermetic" films being lauded as one of the most important American films in 1990s.

SHORT CUTS in many ways resembles NASHVILLE, another Altman's film populated with myriad of characters and their stories accidentally intertwined on the same place. However, this time Altman doesn't want to use satire in order to expose specific cultural phenomenon (he would do it one year later in PRET-A-PORTER); his goals are more ambitious and he wants to expose modern life in all of its horror. He uses camera as god-like instrument that allows the audience to have insight into the most private and intimate details of protagonist's lives, while in the same time he allows audience powerless to change horrific fates that await some unfortunate individuals in the film. SHORT CUTS is powerful, gripping film in which the black humour often intertwines with tragedy - one of the example is the scene in which a boy gets hit by a car only to refuse the offer of guilt-stricken driver to be taken to hospital, justifying his decision with the most sensible advice given by his parents. Actually, all the misery in this film comes from understandable, down-to-earth human frailties as well as equally down-to- earth and understandable twists of fate.

However, although Altman's masterful hands manage to keep our attention from the beginning till the end, SHORT CUTS doesn't deserve all of the praise received by the critics. Since the material is so diverse, it is natural to expect that some characters and vignettes would work and some would not. Among the latter is the love story between alcoholic Earl (played by Tom Waits) and his long-suffering wife Doreen (played by Lily Tomlin). Quality of acting also varies from vignette to vignette and from character to character. It is interesting to find that the most powerful performances come from a relatively obscure actor like Lyle Lovett, while more established actress like Julianne Moore gets remembered mostly for her willingness to appear partially nude in front of camera. Another distraction in SHORT CUTS comes from rather irritating musical soundtrack by Mark Isham and Gavin Friday, dominated by jazz tunes. However, although SHORT CUTS had its formula later used by other, perhaps even more successful and talented filmmakers, it still provides an interesting viewing experience and clear demonstration of the talent of a very important American filmmaker.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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