Because Netflix has had Robert Altman’s 1993 SHORT CUTS on “saved” for a couple of years, I finally got tired of waiting and ordered the Criterion collection edition a few months back. To my surprise it arrived with a companion book, collecting the Raymond Carver short stories Altman adapted (they’re from various collections). Hence the double review.
While the individual stories stand alone, Altman’s film reworks them to add interconnections. In A Small Good Thing, a couple who’ve just lost their son have to deal with the disgruntled baker who made his birthday cake (which they never picked up); in They’re Not Your Husband, a waitress’s husband is initially upset because she’s too fat and her customers make fun of her, then he’s upset because she’s slimmed down and they’re leering at her. In the film, the waitress (Lily Tomlin) accidentally hits the couple’s (Bruce Davison, Andie McDowell) kid, triggering their story arc.
This has an impressive cast including PO’d baker Lyle Lovett, Davison’s shallow father Jack Lemmon, fisherman Fred Ward, phone sex operator Jennifer Jason Leigh, her disgruntled husband Matthew Modine, polyamorous divorcee Alyssa Milano, her vengeful hubby Peter Gallagher, dog-hater Tim Robbins, dog-loving spouse Madeline Stowe, plus Julianne Moore, Robert Downey Jr. and Lili Taylor.The individual parts are good, but the whole was less than the sum of the parts. Partly that’s because the whole runs three hours and that’s too long for a movie that’s largely about the sad, pointless randomness of everyday life, with people struggling to take control of their lives but not doing it. And some of the individual arcs are just too pointless: Tomlin’s waitress loses the arc from her story so it’s mostly just her worrying about the kid and arguing with her husband. What happens to cellist Lori Singer seems to come out of nowhere, which may have been intentional, but it didn’t work for me. While this comes with the usual array of Criterion special features, I don’t feel any urge to watch them yet.“I remember when we used to have fun when we drank.”
However by using such a talented cast, Altman does make the movie more enjoyable than the book was. Of course, serious literature isn’t usually my thing, but even given that, Carver’s portrayal of life being nasty, brutish, pointless and often misogynistic doesn’t whip up my enthusiasm any (I don’t know if that’s Carver’s general style or just what Altman picked to adapt). So I doubt I’ll be reading any more Carver right away.
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