Friday, February 01, 2013

Short Cuts

Originally Written and Posted at on 3/23/07 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Based on the nine short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver, Short Cuts is a multi-layered story involving 22 characters dealing with their lives in the course of a few days in California. Directed by Robert Altman and screenplay by Altman and Frank Barhydt, the film is an ensemble piece that explores the lives of various people some of whom are connected and those that aren't. With an all-star cast that includes Lily Tomlin, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore, Buck Henry, Peter Gallagher, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Chris Penn, Robert Downey Jr., Huey Lewis, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Andie MacDowell, Madeleine Stowe, Bruce Davison, Frances McDormand, Tom Waits, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Lili Taylor, Dirk Blocker, Zane Cassidy, and Jarrett Lennon. Short Cuts is a sprawling yet exuberant film from Robert Altman.

Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher) is a helicopter pilot who is dropping off pesticides all over the suburban home and valleys in California while Dr. Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine) and his wife/artist Marian (Julianne Moore) are watching a string quartet that features the cellist Zoe (Lori Singer) with their friends Stuart (Fred Ward) and Claire Kane (Anne Archer). Zoe's mother Tess Trainer (Annie Ross) is a nightclub jazz singer where Bill (Robert Downey Jr.) and Honey Bush (Lili Taylor) are watching the show. Honey's mother Doreen (Lily Tomlin) is a diner waitress who gets a visit from her limo driver husband Earl (Tom Waits) while Howard Finnigan (Bruce Davison) is making a report about the pesticide drops while his wife Ann (Andie MacDowell) and their son Casey (Zane Cassidy) watch him on TV. Meanwhile, an angry cop named Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins) leaves his wife Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) claiming he's going to a meeting when he's really having an affair with a realtor named Betty (Frances McDormand) whose ex-husband is Stormy who had just called their son Chad (Jarrett Lennon) about Betty's birthday.

With Finnigans planning a birthday party for Casey, a pool cleaner named Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn) arrives to clean the pool while getting a call to clean Tess' pool. Stuart goes on a fishing trip with Vern Miller (Huey Lewis) and Gordon Johnson (Buck Henry) where they make a chilling discovery at the river where they're fishing at. Tired by Earl's drunk appearances, Doreen leaves in a huff where she accidentally hits Casey with her car only for Casey to recover quickly where he walks back home. After returning home from the bakery, Ann finds her son in a state of shock unaware of what's happened to him as she takes him to the hospital where Dr. Wyman checks up on him. With Howard also at the hospital to hear about Casey, he gets an unexpected visit from his estranged father Paul (Jack Lemmon) who makes a startling confession about his own infidelities. Earl goes to the jazz club to see Tess singing as she is dealing with her own issues with Zoe who is in a state of depression.

Jerry and his wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) goes on a trip with Bill and Honey as Jerry is having issues with Lois while Sherri visits her sister Marian where they talk about infidelity where Sherri learns about Marian and Ralph's marital problems. After a tense visit from Stormy, Betty tells Gene that she's going out for the weekend with her son though Gene thinks she's lying where he later spies on her. On the day of the Wymans' barbeque party where Stuart and Claire attend unaware of Ralph and Marian's issues. With everyone upset and unhappy about their lives, everyone would come together in a moment of clarity as well as deal with tragedy.

Whereas most ensemble features, especially as ambitious as this one, tend to connect characters with one another and at times, tend to be contrived. For this film, Altman chooses to throw away the idea of a plot and just let a story or some scene tell itself. Definitely inspired by the works of Raymond Carver, Short Cuts is a film that doesn't have a lot of themes or any sense of morality or judgement. The whole film is really about people, ordinary people living their life through the disappointments, the daily struggles, and frustrations of what goes on. The characters are people that audiences can relate to in every way and form. It's the many characters that drive the film's stories and how each group of characters relate to another group. It's all done in the Altman spirit of improvisation, overlapping dialogue, and intertwining moments that allows the audience to get to know the characters and the situations.

While some audiences might find some of the stories and characters' situation hard to follow, the payoff over what happens is fulfilling. From the story of Jerry being neglected by his wife to the story of a disgruntled baker being left with an expensive cake. Neglect is a small theme from a booze-drinking jazz singer who is unaware of her daughter's depression to a phone-sex operator not wanting to talk dirty to her husband. The characters of Tess and Lois aren't totally bad since Lois is trying to make money for her family while Tess is just depressed over environment. Infidelity is another issue whether it's Marian and Ralph in a very high-octane emotional scene, Gene's cheating and his awful lies that often entertain his wife, and the heartbreaking confession from Paul Finnigan telling his son what happened. All of these scenes through the script that Altman co-wrote and his direction is very observant. Even in some of the film's intense, emotional moments where Altman moves his camera to convey something that is powerful and not taking it too close to capture this emotional moment.

Cinematographer Walt Lloyd does an excellent job in capturing Los Angeles with his intimate, sprawling photography while making several scenes in the film's interior settings to be intimate and observant. Altman's late editor Geraldine Peroni does an amazing job in shifting the differing stories from one to another and connecting characters to another without making it too confusing. It's also very rhythmic to the energy and style of the film. Production designer Stephen Altman and art director Jerry Fleming do an excellent job in creating the look of the homes of the different characters and the personalities to represent each group. Costume designer John Hay also plays to the different atmosphere of the characters in the costumes from the hippie-like clothing of Honey Bush to the posh look that Marian wears. Sound editor Eliza Paley also goes for atmosphere in the film's opening sequences the sounds of helicopters flying over Los Angeles and in the places where people get together. Music composer Mark Isham brings a melodic, jazz driven score to play to the character of Tess while also doing some subtle, orchestral score work to convey the film's drama.

Finally, there's the film's huge ensemble cast. Included in the cast are some small yet memorable performances from comedian Charles Rocket, Michael Beach and Andi Chapman as a couple who asks Honey Bush to watch over her house, Susie Cusack and Deborah Falconer as a couple of bicyclists, Margery Bond, and Nashville actor Robert DoQui. Jarrett Lennon is excellent as the Captain Planet-obsessed Chad Weathers and Zane Cassidy is great as Casey Finnigan. Lyle Lovett is wonderful as the disgruntled baker Bitkower while 80s pop singer Huey Lewis and writer Buck Henry are great as the fishing buddies Vern and Gordon, respectively.

Robert Downey Jr. is funny as the quirky, horny Bill Bush with Lily Taylor as the eccentric yet concerned Honey, who seems troubled by her own relationship towards her stepfather. Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent as the phone-sex operator Lois who tries to maintain her family's security with the late Chris Penn giving a great performance as the neglected, sexually-frustrated Jerry.

Penn's Footloose co-star Lori Singer is great as the depressed, neglected Zoe who channels all of her emotions through her cello playing. Annie Ross is wonderful as the drunk jazz singer whose drinking is caused by her hatred for her dead husband while being unkind towards her daughter. Andie MacDowell is excellent in her role as Ann Finnigan whose life is in chaos over her son's life hanging by a thread and the strange phone calls she's getting. Bruce Davison is also excellent as Howard Finnigan whose misguided anger over his son's accident leads him into trouble while having to face his own demons.

The late yet legendary Jack Lemmon gives an amazing, scene-stealing performance as Paul Finnigan with a heartbreaking performance in which he tells his son about his infidelity and the anticipation of meeting his grandson for the first time. Anne Archer is wonderful as the loving wife Claire who is in shock over her husband's reaction towards a dead body while Fred Ward is great as Stuart who is unsure of what to do in seeing a dead body. Matthew Modine is excellent as the conservative yet consumed Dr. Ralph Wyman whose work and home life has been in conflict.

Julianne Moore delivers a knock-out performance as Marian Wyman who is forced to reveal her own dark secret to her husband in a very powerful scene that also required her to do it in very naked way. It's a great performance from Moore. Madeleine Stowe is funny as Marian's sister Sherri who is amused by her husband's lies and awareness that he cheats on her knowing it'll get the best of him. Tim Robbins is excellent as the mean, cheating Gene Shepard who is forced to question his own infidelity which starts to go nowhere.

Frances McDormand gives a fine yet angst-ridden performance as a woman whose affairs start to crumble with the appearance of her ex-husband as McDormand shows the kind of selfishness and loneliness her character brings. Peter Gallagher is very funny as Stormy Weathers who learns of his ex-wife's affairs and decides to take some funny actions towards it. Singer Tom Waits is wonderfully touching as the verbally-abusive alcoholic Earl whose own life has taken a turn while trying to deal with his marriage. Lily Tomlin is great as Doreen whose own life is in a change of direction after an incident that forces her to re-examine things while dealing with her own tumultuous life with Earl.

Short Cuts is a magnificent film from Robert Altman. Armed with a spectacular array of actors and ideas about family and doing what is right. While it's a big film with lots of characters and storylines, it's a film that does lose itself in the sense of chaos that is prevalent in the film while it is also a showcase for the actors. In the end, Short Cuts is a towering achievement from Robert Altman.

Robert Altman Films: (The Delinquents) - (The James Dean Story) - Countdown (1968 film) - (That Cold Day in the Park) - M.A.S.H. - Brewster McCloud - McCabe & Mrs. Miller - (Images) - The Long Goodbye - Thieves Like Us - California Split - Nashville - Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson - 3 Women - (A Wedding) - (Quintet) - (A Perfect Couple) - (HealtH) - Popeye - (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) - (Streamers) - (Secret Honor) - (O.C. and Stiggs) - Fool for Love - (Beyond Therapy) - (Aria-Les Boreades) - (Tanner ‘88) - (Vincent & Theo) - The Player - Pret-a-Porter - (Kansas City) - (The Gingerbread Man) - Cookie’s Fortune - Dr. T & the Women - Gosford Park - The Company (2003 film) - (Tanner on Tanner) - A Prairie Home Companion

© thevoid99 2013


Anonymous said...

Excellent review, it was so interesting how Altman weaved the stories together.

thevoid99 said...

It's one of the reasons why Robert Altman should be in the list of the great filmmakers. He finds a way to connect these stories and make it into something bigger.