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Short Cuts.

"Short Cuts" (Fine Line Features) has been given tremendous advance buildup as a "serious" movie. Adapted from short stories by Raymond Carver and technically accomplished, it was chosen to open the New York Film Festival this fall. It would appear aimed at NCR readers.

Unfortunately, such pretentious ambitions make its fundamental mean-spiritedness more grievous. In the critical world that hails "Short Cuts," a reputation for profundity is sometimes earned by a cynical portrayal of the human enterprise as basically meaningless.

Altman plays fair in choosing his title. He moves so abruptly from one fragment to another that, despite getting good performances out of the more than 20 principal actors, we are more than halfway through the movie's 189 minutes before we can work out its narrative threads.

Short cuts are simply not enough; the constant shifting of material taken from nine Carver stories calls attention to the director's cleverness but means that none of the stories gets told properly. It doesn't help that some of the actresses resemble each other.

Although a good screen adaptation calls for a fresh creative act, some changes are especially revealing. Moving the action from Carver's small towns of Oregon and Washington to the frenetic, pseudo-sophisticated world of Los Angeles gives Altman a chance to open his movie with scary shots of a team of helicopters indiscriminately spraying the entire area.

It also means abandoning Carver's unsentimental yet compassionate, examination of working-class frustrations and estrangement for the detached dissection of what the director regards as our doomed society.

Relationships even in Hollywood, which may be Altman's concealed subject, have at least a little humanity, and some of his additions, like having one wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) offer phone sex while diapering her baby only imitate what he pretends to criticize. (In Carver, the wife sells vitamins.)

Some reviewers have pointed up the comic aspects of the movie, but the audience I saw it with was sniggering, not laughing, making sickly male sounds at several situations in which women were being insulted or presented in degrading ways. It is hardly coincidental that two non-Carver characters invented for the movie are a jazz singer (Annie Ross) and her disturbed daughter (Lori Singer), one a total egoist and the other used voyeuristically.

Altman tries to wrap himself in a prophetic mantle by concluding with an earthquake-ex-machina, but his lack of credentials is revealed by the repellent scene in which a nauseous husband badgers his wife (Julianne Moore) about a possible past infidelity, and she responds by displaying herself without panties.

Carver's world is hardly cheerful and he does not hesitate to show the meanness people are capable of, yet there is ultimately a sense that that's not all they are.

In a new introduction to the stories Altman drew on for "Short Cut" (Vintage Books), he writes that the situations are Carver stories or paraphrases of Carver stories or inspired by Carver stories, so we always tried to stay as close as possible to his world, given film's collaborative imperative."

Why then present Doreen (Lily Tomlin), waitress who is constantly insulted by her alcoholic husband, Earl, (Tom Waits) simply as dependent on him whereas Carver's "They're Not Your Husband" works a reversal, showing her to be the stronger of the two?

Even worse, Altman deliberately cuts away from the healing tone of the finale with its diffused sense of communion.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Nov 12, 1993
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