Short Cuts (1993)

Dir. Robert Altman. Starring Tim Robbins, Annie Ross, Julianne Moore

Pesticides are being dropped on Los Angeles,and God defend the right. Julianne Moore’s character is safely inside at a concert (with Alex Trebek!), but there’s a similar motif to what you find in Safe a couple years later. Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) yells at her husband, Gene (Robbins) to make sure the dog comes inside so it doesn’t get cancer. Gene hates the dog, hates the kids, seems to hate everything. As he storms out of the house, Sherri provides one of the better passive-aggressive insults in a movie that manufactures a bunch in three hours: “You should start smoking again.” Tess (Ross) is worried that the pesticides might make her pool unsafe to swim in and pesters Jerry (Chris Penn) about coming over to look at her pool, even though she’s not on the schedule. Yet within a few hours – by the following evening, really – no one even thinks the word “medflies.” The pace of life is too rapid, the threats and intrigues too many to keep medflies at the top of anyone’s to-do list for too long.

What vapid people all of these folks are, and so many of them to keep track of! (Except you, Alex Trebek. I had no idea you were in this movie and I about died when I saw you sitting there, listening to chamber music while Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine made way too much noise. I am so sorry they did that to you. Guys, Alex Trebek is in this movie.)

By my reckoning, every adult character in this film is given some opportunity to redeem themselves from being endlessly vapid. Not everyone takes it. Some people take the chance, but others don’t. Some of those people who take the opportunity don’t have any choice in the matter. The Finnigans (Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell) are in that last bracket. Howard is the blowhard whose face and voice are a significant piece of the first few minutes of the film. It’s not a war against Iraq or terrorists or the former Yugoslavia that we should focus on, he says (while absolutely terrifying everyone who’s watched this movie since its release), but the war on medflies! Ann is a helicopter mother, still using the voices we typically reserve for infants and puppies on her son, who will be nine in a day or two. It takes the shocking but not necessarily surprising death of their son for them to find an opportunity to broaden themselves, but it comes hand-in-hand with a transformative experience at the bakery where they ordered the cake for Casey’s ninth. The baker (Lyle Lovett, of all people) has been harassing Ann at home with aggressive phone calls; turns out that he’s cheesed off that he spent time and energy on a cake that no one picked up. The first encounter between the Finnigans and baker Bitkower, as well as the scenes which follow, are sadly empty. Bitkower feels just awful about what he’s done, but why on earth would he have done it anyway? Has any small business owner ever made a series of increasingly angry phone calls like that? Has any couple who’s just lost their child and come to confront a stalker been won over by muffins? The lesson is fairly clear: when the characters become less vapid, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie becomes less vapid. The most interesting characters in Short Cuts tend to be interesting because of their vice, and the more insignificant and petty their vices the more fruitful the drama.

That’s certainly true for Howard’s father, Paul (Jack Lemmon), who made a bad decision one day decades ago and has been out of his son’s life ever since. Some serendipity brought him to Los Angeles on the day that his grandson, Casey (who he’s never met and whose name he has a really tough time remembering) goes into the hospital, and for the first time in many years he sees his son again. It’s the first time he’s met his daughter-in-law. In what must be the film’s longest monologue, maybe one of its longest scenes, Paul explains what kept him away so long; Howard’s mother chased Paul off not long after she caught Paul with her sister, on the same day that the child Howard had a significant injury himself. Paul explains that his sister-in-law got him drunk early in the morning and seduced him. It’s a riveting story – it would be a riveting story if it were about getting milk on the way home from work because it’s Jack Lemmon – but something about it simply doesn’t ring true. Maybe it’s because I just watched Reservoir Dogs, but it smacks of the commode story. It’s too rehearsed, too practiced. The beats are all there, like for decades Paul Finnigan has known he’s going to have to explain to his son that it wasn’t his fault. The audition could be any day now, so he has to be ready. Did he practice this in the car? on the plane? in the shower? before bed? The nuance here is absolutely phenomenal; he is so honest that at the very least he sounds dishonest. Either way, he isn’t there for his son when his grandson’s accident proves fatal; while Casey’s parents huddle as close as they can to their son, watching from behind the glass, Casey’s grandfather wanders off into an empty hallway, absent the rest of the movie.

Take the Kanes as well. Stuart (Fred Ward) is a salesman who would be between jobs if being unemployed for a quarter still counted for that euphemism. His wife, Claire (Anne Archer) is a clown, the kind you have for kids’ parties. Stuart goes out fishing with Buck Henry and Huey Lewis (who aren’t playing themselves). They head out to a deserted little spot, but while Huey Lewis is taking a leak into the river, he realizes that there’s a nude female corpse in the water with an obscured face. It took a long time to hike out to this spot. No one has a cell phone. (There’s a quaint line, really the only line in the movie that’s aged, where someone says, essentially, “What, do you have a cellular phone hidden away somewhere?” as if it would be equally likely that the phone was wrapped in the Shroud of Turin.) They came here to fish, and fish they do, but first they get a cord to tie the woman to bank, essentially, to make sure she doesn’t float away. The fishing is great. The dead woman doesn’t budge. The cops don’t show up and the gang, presumably, packs up without a hitch. They report her to the cops after they break down camp and leave. By the time they’ve really gotten into catching their trout, she’s almost like a mascot; Buck Henry makes a point to grab photos of her. When Stuart gets home, he eventually tells Claire about what they found. She’s heartbroken. You didn’t even take her out of the water? she asks. She is far away enough from the situation to be decent, and Archer acts this scene well. At the beginning she is satisfied – the two have had some solid middle-aged marital sex while we weren’t looking – with this broader than natural smile. The story of the girl in the water is told while we watch her, her eyebrows falling, her smile dropping. She finally gets up and out of bed; the scene ends when she slams the bathroom door on Stuart, pushing him out entirely. She’s right to do so, even if traveling to Bakersfield for a viewing might have been extra penance that she didn’t need to undergo. More than any other character with a bit of self-control and a desire to do something decent, Claire demands attention as a complete person. Her job, weirdly enough, makes her much more human. Nearly twenty-five years on we’ve been conditioned to be much more afraid of clowns than we were in ’93, but Claire is genuinely non-threatening in her bright green wig, blue eyes with exaggerated eyelashes, and pink hearts for her cheeks. Even though they’re going extinct even faster than giraffes and rhinoceroses, birthday clowns tend to be relatively gentle people; it’s hard to imagine one who is characteristically vituperative or mean-spirited simply because the job requires so much interaction with small children.

The Kanes’ foils are the Wymans (Matthew Modine and Moore). Ralph is Casey Finnigan’s primary doctor who is conspicuously absent when Casey dies; he had been optimistic the whole time about the child’s condition and was scheduling surgery for him. Marian is a painter, maybe a little shallow, but at least she’s warmer than her perpetually frigid, whiny husband. Modine has the perfect voice and mien for this role, of the person who just feels blissfully superior to every inch of his surroundings. But if he’s so superior, why did his wife screw someone else three years ago? It seems to be really bothering him. Marian, wearing absolutely nothing below the waist, recounts the story of that evening for Ralph; she was drunk, they were driving around Los Angeles looking for an open liquor store in the middle of the night, the other guy started it, they had sex in the car. Certainly this isn’t part of a nutritious breakfast, but there’s also no evidence that Marian ever tried to turn it into an affair. It was nothing, she says, nothing at all. Ralph – who earlier that day was nowhere to be found while a nine-year-old in his care died – is more shrill and loud seemingly every time Marian takes a breath. Then let’s hear all about nothing, Ralph replies. Probably no single pair of actors in this film are as acclaimed as Modine and Moore, and in this scene it’s clear why. For Davison and MacDowell, who are given similarly barebones characters to play, the effect of any scene they have is muted. In the films I’ve seen them in, their performances were dwarfed by the other actors around them. (Davison is all but invisible next to Paul Scofield, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder in The Crucible; MacDowell’s list of thankless roles in early ’90s romcoms is lengthy, but she has always been a better L’Oreal spokesperson than a movie star.) Modine is fully capable of commanding the screen, but it’s Moore, as always, who is most noteworthy. There may not be an American actress who had a better 1990s than Moore (can anyone top her troika of Boogie Nights, Safe, and Short Cuts?), who even after winning that Oscar remains this nation’s most underappreciated and underrated actress. In this scene she never does quite lose her composure. Earlier in the film, Ralph comes home to find Sherri totally naked in the foyer, modeling for Marian’s painting. Sherri plays it off without a trace of embarrassment, and after a minute it starts to feel like she’s teasing her brother-in-law. While only half-naked (and that because her drink spilled on her skirt and she’s trying to wash it out), Marian decides to carry on this argument. It’s a power move that Ralph cannot interpret; he is distracted by it, seems to decide that it’s evidence of her lewdness, but by bringing it up at all loses righteous indignation points. What does it matter right this second if his wife’s not wearing any underwear? Does that have any bearing on the events of a sloshed evening three years past?

The two couples, having accidentally set a dinner date with each other while at the concert (there’s a good running gag about how the husbands not only have no idea who the other men are, they don’t even recognize the other wives), meet as these events are converging. As the alcohol flows and the trout that Stuart caught ignites, Claire and Marian come outside onto the porch. Claire is in full makeup and has dressed Marian up as well, painting hearts onto her protegee’s cheeks but leaving out the white face. “What do you want to be?” she asks Ralph. Ralph has his pat answer, ready to skewer Marian with. “I want to be nothing!” he responds in the same sing-song, pitchy voice Claire used for him. Earlier, while they were playing a Jeopardy board game (in honor of the Man, the Myth, the Mustache Which He Still Wore Back Then), Marian makes an offhand comment about cheating at the game. “No, Marian,” Ralph says, relishing each syllable, “you’re the cheater.” But Ralph is not the only one with barbs for a spouse. While Marian is busy drawing a (for a professional painter) surprisingly clumsy cat face on Stuart, Claire chucks her wig at him and makes up lyrics to a familiar tune about a girl crying for help as she floats down a river. Stuart’s had too much to drink. “She was already dead,” he says in much the same tone of voice that Gus Grissom had a decade earlier when he insisted that the hatch just blew. The couples have enough revenge on each other for a night. They celebrate surviving the 7.4 earthquake the next morning with more alcohol. If the wicked have been punished, then it’s a small punishment for them to have borne. If the righteous are vindicated, it probably wasn’t worth the trouble they had to take to be found blameless in the sight of their spouses.

These are the three major pairs of the film – the Finnigans, Kanes, and Wymans seem to sweep nearly everyone else up one way or another – but to exclude everyone else would ignore some of the better performances in the film. No one takes more time to become relevant than the Kaisers (Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh), for example, but the payoff is surprisingly impressive. What sounds like the setup to a lame joke turns out to have a surprising level of pathos as the film goes on. The first time we hear Lois have phone sex with a paying customer, Jerry just looks a little forlorn, mostly concerned that his son – who is probably old enough to repeat some of that at school and get a worried look from his teacher – will hear what his mother is saying. It’s an amusing scene played against the background of a typical lower-middle-class home even if it seems that it’s only got the legs for a single telling. Leigh is a better comedian than I gave her credit for being, and much more versatile on the line than one might have guessed, able to play a variety of roles with aplomb. (She got a genuine wince out of me when she tells one customer to put aftershave on a q-tip and ram it in a sensitive area of the male anatomy.) Jerry, who seems too tired and busy to care about anything while he’s at work, sort of perpetually cow-eyed and pathetic, ultimately can’t hide his jealousy: Lois has certainly never talked to him like that. Lois, who is much prettier than Jerry and more practical, able to change a baby and dominate a grown man on the phone simultaneously, never explains the obvious to her husband; nobody talks to anyone like that. Does he really want the simulacrum that his wife is pushing on customers? Is that preferable to their passionless but high-functioning marriage? This should be a total dead end because the joke isn’t really that funny, like it’s a two-minute paradoxical bit for those of us who aren’t ready to graduate to Pascal or Wittgenstein. It works because Leigh and Penn don’t say much else, for one thing, and because the action keeps pushing them into the same situation every night, and because the blocking usually keeps them in separate rooms, and because Altman is allergic to close-ups in this movie. The Bushes (Robert Downey, Jr. and Lili Taylor), their friends, seem to have a similar issue at the heart of their relationship. Namely, one of them (Bill) is so wrapped up in his career that the other’s (Honey’s) hurts go largely unnoticed. He has the movie’s single funniest moment when he elbows a blanket with a woman in a bikini on it in the “face.” (This doesn’t sound funny at all, but the execution, as it often is with Downey, is brilliant.) Downey is doing the high-speed patter that he’s famous for throughout but mumbling much more than usual, as if trying to summon the spirit of Monty Clift through this performance. Taylor is engaging and genuine, maybe a little odd but obviously kindhearted; since she’s playing Lily Tomlin’s daughter, this is pitch-perfect. Honey never can make it clear to Bill that they shouldn’t smoke in their fastidious neighbors’ apartment despite her protestations, or get him to appreciate just how bad her relationship with her dad, Earl (Tom Waits) is. While she tries to be supportive of his career (there’s a series of good gags on this point), she can’t get him to be supportive of her life. She and Claire don’t meet, have practically no point of connection, but if the two of them were to meet they would recognize each other. It is no surprise that when the earthquake hits, Bill and Jerry are chasing tail together. For Bill, it’s because he wants something for himself and why should he give any thought to his wife? For Jerry, it’s because he thinks he’s been cheated out of something he ought to have.

Short Cuts is technically masterful – Geraldine Peroni’s editing is as essential to this movie as any other single element – but Altman and Frank Barhydt’s script is artful, thoughtful, and deeply organized. It should be easy to lose track of the characters, but everyone’s name is said just enough, and everyone’s traits are clearly stated, and each person looks so different from the others (which is a miracle of casting). Fooling around without one’s spouse is like an epidemic, but there’s no question of who Stuart and his pals are sexually harassing, who Gene’s sleeping with at any given time, or why Stormy (Peter Gallagher) is cutting up Betty’s (Frances McDormand, who is so much better in this movie than to be mentioned for the first time 3,000 words in) entire wardrobe. The role of chance is powerfully important – “Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain” and all that – and character after character is the evidence for how something might be incredibly different. It’s hardly possible for them to know; Tomlin’s Doreen strikes Casey and is responsible for his death, but leaves the scene after being assured by the child that he’s fine and he’ll walk home. Barring some unlikely miracle, the Finnigans will never have justice. A mix-up at the photo booth means that both Gordon (Henry) and Honey walk away having seen what should be wildly incriminating photos. If Gene had chosen to come into the house while Stormy was cutting up every square inch of it, there might have been a ruckus and even an arrest. The dead girl could have been at any bend in the river. If Zoe (Lois Singer) and Tess lived next door to someone besides the Finnigans, Zoe might never have had the impetus to kill herself. And so on. In any text chance must play some role (unless you’re reading like, Hegel’s Philosophy of History, in which case, don’t), but in a film like Short Cuts the scythe that fortune, for good or ill, plays in individual’s lives can be witnessed godlike. It reminds us vaguely of apparatus theory, of the point of view that watching the lives of others in the darkness provides a viewer with terrible power. Short Cuts is hardly a defense of a reductive theoretical point of view that was bankrupt upon arrival, but it’s hard to deny that it gives us a surprising ability to connect dots where others must be in the dark. To see two dozen people’s lives interact is to see through the Lord’s retinas; Short Cuts makes us wonder if that’s even desirable.

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