Using the framing devices of a flight of helicopters over L.A. by night at the start of the film (they’re releasing insecticide against a mayfly infestation) and a small earthquake at the end (an extra tremor sent through the protagonists’ already tumultuous lives), Altman charts the disconnections, interrelationships, joys, miseries, camaraderie, bereavements, myriad failings and small redemptions of a couple of dozen disparate characters from various walks of life and social strata.
Affluent couple Howard (Bruce Davison) and Ann Finnigan (Andie MacDowell) – he a TV anchorman, she a brittle lady of leisure – have their lives thrown into touch-and-go uncertainty when their son runs out in front of a car and is knocked down. The (blameless) driver is harassed waitress Doreen Piggott (Lily Tomlin), whose limo driver husband Earl (Tom Waits) drinks too much and gets riled when she receives attention from other men at the diner. Doreen’s daughter Honey (Lili Taylor) is married to wannabe movie FX artist Bill Bush (Robert Downey Jr), a roguish type with a wandering eye, whose best mate Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn) is an embittered pool cleaner married to phone sex worker Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and driven to distraction by the smut she disinterestedly talks to her callers.
Stopping off at the diner to shoot the shit before they take off on a fishing trip are Stuart Kane (Fred Ward), Vern Miller (Huey Lewis) and Gordon Johnson (Buck Henry). Stuart’s wife Claire (Anne Archer) works as a clown at children’s parties as well as appearing at the children’s ward of the hospital the Finnigans’ son is taken to. It’s here that Howard has an unexpected reunion from his wayward father Paul (Jack Lemmon). Meanwhile, Claire tears Stuart a new arsehole when he returns from his four day fishing trip and confesses that he and his buddies found a dead body of a woman in the water on the first day and left her there while they got on with their fishing.
Vern gets back to discover that his son has taken in a stray dog. Said pooch was abandoned by philandering motorcycle cop (and pathological liar) Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins) after an argument with his wife Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) which was exacerbated by the dog chewing on Gene’s leg. Sherri spends a lot of time either on the phone to or posing nude for her artist sister Marian (Julianne Moore), who is married to jealous and antagonistic surgeon Dr Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine). Dr Wyman works at the hospital where the Finnigans’ son is being kept under observation; in the next room, and restored to health thanks to the doc’s ministrations, is the son of blues singer Tess Trainer (Annie Ross), who lives with her depressive cellist daughter Zoe (Lori Singer) next door to the Finnigans.
Have I missed anyone out? Oh, yes. There’s Betty (Frances McDormand), estranged wife of helicopter pilot “Stormy” Weathers (Peter Gallagher), with whom Gene is having an affair. And there’s Andy Bitkower (Lyle Lovett), the chef from whom Ann orders a birthday cake just before her son is knocked down; in the immediate aftermath, such social niceties as collecting and paying for said cake slip her mind and Andy, incensed, embarks on a campaign of nuisance phone calls.
In the meantime, Claire and Stuart are invited to a barbeque hosted by Ralph and Marian, the timing proving less than auspicious as both couples are virtually at breaking point in their relationships; nonetheless, the fragile equilibrium the end of the evening finds them at suggests that there might be some chance of conciliation. Other characters don’t fare so well.
Infidelity and incompatibility are the hallmarks of many of the relationships depicted, but Altman’s (and Carver’s) overarching theme is connection. The ways, however tenuous, in which lives overlap – sometimes shatteringly, sometimes by the most whimsical turn of circumstance. And it never feels laboured or contrived as in, say, Paul Haggis’s over-egged ‘Crash’ (for my money one of the most inexplicable Oscar faves in recent years).
Like life, Altman’s film is a thing of contradictory experiences, seemingly random and messy but inextricably interconnected. Sympathetic characters take wrong turns (no spoilers) while a self-obsessed knob-head like Gene comes through at the end and does the right thing by his family. Several characters find solace in the oblivion of alcohol. Some live in the past. Some dream of the future. Some struggle with the tribulations of the here and now. The song that Tess sings over the opening credits – “Prisoners of Life” – pretty much sums it up.
And the crazy thing is – for all that ‘Short Cuts’ trades in bleak subject matter (it contains as much cheatin’, drinkin’, death, heartache and suicide as your average C&W album) – it’s often screamingly funny. Sherri disinterestedly clipping her toe nails while she talks dirty to a caller. Gene bullishly retrieving the dog from its new “owners”. Stormy’s systematic destruction of Betty’s living room interrupted by a vacuum cleaner salesman. Doreen and Earl whooping it up as the earthquake hits, almost joyously embracing the possibility that “this is the big one”.
With more masterpieces on his CV than most, ‘Short Cuts’ might well be Altman’s warmest and wittiest statement on the human condition, no matter how terribly pragmatic that statement might be. As human beings, we royally fuck each other up … but we can’t do without each other.