October 18, 1993 12:00 PM

Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Lily Tomlin, Tom Wails, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Chris Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore

Director Robert Altman has said that Short Cuts is his best work since 1975’s Nashville, and he’s right. Clocking in at three hours and seven minutes, this movie about white middle-class life in Los Angeles is not so much a movie as an irresistible force. It’s cruel, tough and powerful.

Altman (with Frank Barhydt) based his screenplay on some half-dozen short stories by the late Raymond Carver, a terse master at depicting the dull pain and occasional sharp emotional stabs of run-of-the-mill Americans. At first, moving these 20-odd characters from Carver country (often the Pacific Northwest) to blandly sunny Los Angeles and intertwining their lives seems a mistake. The screen is crowded with sad little people: a waitress and her alcoholic husband (Tomlin and Waits); a newscaster and his wife (Davison and MacDowell) whose son is hit by a car; a housewife (Leigh) who operates a phone-sex business. It’s like watching the Ant Farm of Despair.

After about an hour, though, the stories begin to wind together and tighten into a knot, and you start to have the goose-bumpy sense that Altman is really going to pull it off. Archer has the movie’s defining, heart-stopping scene, lying in bed and listening as her husband (Ward) talks matter-of-factly about the nude female body he and his buddies found on their fishing trip. Archer’s face, framed against her pillow, is a landscape of anguish: sorrow for the dead woman (who turns out to have been raped and strangled), then disgust when Ward adds he didn’t report the body until he had finished fishing.

Given all the stories Altman is juggling, some of them are bound to be given short shrift, or misfire, or not quite click. Yet Short Cuts is filled with unforgettable moments, superbly acted: Ross, an alcoholic jazz singer, contemptuously tossing an ice cube onto daughter Singer’s back as she floats facedown in the swimming pool; Modine, devastated after wife Moore’s admission of an infidelity, squcaking out air from a balloon and miming a scream; and Penn’s come-on to a teenage girl—a seduction scene that goes haywire and unexpectedly spins the movie into a nerve-rattling, big-scale conclusion that sweeps up all these lives and shakes them like so many miserable puppets. (R)

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