Prime Cuts

And so it goes, one lost soul after another. Altman trots out a virtual parade of clueless suburban archetypes: Earl, an alcoholic limo driver whose relationship with the waitress Doreen, his wife, is an endless series of drunken fits and starts; Marian, a painter with a killer crush on Alex Trebek; Marian's husband Ralph, who is the injured boy Casey's doctor; Jerry Kaiser, the mild-mannered pool cleaner whose wife Lois nonchalantly operates a phone-sex business out of their house while she does the laundry and changes diapers; Andy, the lonely baker who goes ballistic when Ann forgets to pick up Casey's custom-made cake; Zoe, the melancholy cellist with the penchants for skinny-dipping, pickup basketball, and self-mutilation.

These people are just one step removed from the zombies who mindlessly wander shopping malls in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. They comfort themselves with modern-day mantras: Don't accept rides from strangers. Get the license-plate number. When an earthquake hits, take shelter in the nearest doorway. They've lost the ability to think and feel for themselves. Instead they react to crisis situations by following rules drummed into them since kindergarten. And even then they blow it. When Ann comes home from the bakery and finds her brave little Casey passed out on the couch, she becomes hysterical and cannot remember whether to let the kid sleep or to keep him awake until the ambulance arrives.

Only an artist of Altman's surpassing skill could render such a human landscape at once bleak and funny. For example, Gordon Johnson, a weekend angler, has stopped by the neighborhood photo shop to pick up the prints he and his buddies shot during their big fishing trip, the one where they discovered the corpse of a beautiful woman who had been brutally murdered, floating in the stream. Meanwhile, Honey Bush, a passive housewife, has come to the same store to retrieve snapshots taken by her husband, an aspiring special-effects makeup artist who practices his grisly art on her, making her up to look like a mutilated murder victim and then photographing her from a variety of harrowing angles. The clerk accidentally switches the photographs; Gordon blanches at the sight of what appear to be stills from a snuff film, and Honey recoils when she sees the floating body in the mountain stream.

Recognizing the mixup as they walk back to their respective cars, Gordon and Honey stop and eye each other warily -- each convinced the other is a sadistic killer but trying to act calmly so as not to arouse suspicions. The photographs are politely exchanged; the fisherman and the housewife return to their vehicles, each making a mental note of the other's license-plate number so that they can report their gruesome "discovery" to the proper authorities.

A shortcut is supposed to be a way of getting from one place to another more quickly than by conventional means. Ironically, if there's one American director whose body of work suggests a complete lack of concern with getting from point A to point B rapidly, it's Robert Altman. Actors love him; for Altman a script is a bare-bones outline to be fleshed out in front of the camera, with plenty of room for improvisation. The end result is that Altman films are usually teeming with great performances, and Short Cuts is no exception. From Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits as Doreen and Earl to Lyle Lovett as the volatile baker, Short Cuts is a textbook example of superb ensemble acting. And it's worth the price of admission to see Tim Robbins as macho Gene, standing under the doorway of his home in his boxer shorts, grabbing a bullhorn, and commanding his neighbors to be calm as an earthquake rattles their walls.

In his novel Ninety-Two in the Shade, Thomas McGuane writes, "Life looked straight in the eye is insupportable.... The great trick is to avoid looking it straight in the eye. Askance and it all shines on." Short Cuts is a movie populated by folks who have taken McGuane's words to heart. They do everything they can to avoid looking life straight in the eye. Robert Altman, on the other hand, cannot help himself. He feels compelled to examine it all under the harsh light of day. With Short Cuts he takes a long, hard look into the maw of the modern American psyche and confirms his strongest suspicion and worst fear. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, there is no there, there. It's ironic that such a dim view of the human condition is conveyed by a film so rich with subtle characterization, wry humor, and shrewd observation. Life may be empty, but Short Cuts is full to the brim.

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