Short Cuts (1993) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Robert Altman is considered to be one of the greatest film directors in history, and Short Cuts is rated fourth best among his 34 theatrical films with a rating at IMDb.

  1. (7.79) - Player, The (1992)
  2. (7.79) - MASH (1970)
  3. (7.68) - Nashville (1975)
  4. (7.59) - Short Cuts (1993)
  5. (7.51) - 3 Women (1977)
  6. (7.47) - McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
  7. (7.30) - Gosford Park (2001)
  8. (7.26) - Long Goodbye, The (1973)
  9. (7.06) - Images (1972/I)
  10. (7.00) - Vincent & Theo (1990)
  11. (6.89) - Cookie's Fortune (1999)
  12. (6.79) - Thieves Like Us (1974)
  13. (6.75) - Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
  14. (6.65) - Wedding, A (1978)
  15. (6.56) - Secret Honor (1984)
  16. (6.44) - Streamers (1983)
  17. (6.38) - Brewster McCloud (1970)
  18. (6.29) - Company, The (2003)
  19. (6.28) - California Split (1974)
  20. (6.11) - Countdown (1968)
  21. (5.87) - That Cold Day in the Park (1969)
  22. (5.86) - James Dean Story, The (1957)
  23. (5.82) - Kansas City (1996)
  24. (5.76) - Perfect Couple, A (1979)
  25. (5.71) - Gingerbread Man, The (1998)
  26. (5.40) - Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)
  27. (5.27) - Fool for Love (1985)
  28. (5.09) - HealtH (1982)
  29. (5.02) - O.C. and Stiggs (1987)
  30. (4.82) - Popeye (1980)
  31. (4.82) - Prêt-à-Porter (1994)
  32. (4.82) - Dr. T & the Women (2000)
  33. (4.55) - Quintet (1979)
  34. (4.32) - Beyond Therapy (1987)

So is it really that good? Yes and no.

It is the best of films; it is the worst of films ...

It has a great script. Altman made Short Cuts from a group of stories (actually nine short stories and a poem) written by Raymond Carver, one of the great voices of the American working class. Raymond Carver was born in 1938, which means he was too young to experience the Great Depression, but he grew up in a home without indoor plumbing, so he was essentially an anachronism, a man who lived a Depression-era life even though that life was actually taking place during America's sunny post-war prosperity.

Carver's family consisted of blue collar laborers in Yakima, in the part of Washington State east of the Cascades, in the heart of America's fruit basket. His dad was an alcoholic mill worker who died young, his mom worked in diners and general stores. Their story is mirrored in the film's characters played by Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin. Fascinatingly, the Earl and Doreen characters in Carver's short story, "They're Not Your Husband", were not that similar to Carver's parents, but Altman out-Carvered Carver, and brought the characters into line with episodes from Carver's other stories, as well as his life.

Altman didn't so much adapt Carver's stories as use them for inspiration in a multi-layered process.

  • Step 1: Altman played with the material.

    • In a couple of cases, Altman stuck very close to the original stories. "A Small, Good Thing" is about a baker who lashes out in a campaign of anger against a rich couple who stiff him on a designer birthday cake, only to find out that the cake is forgotten because the birthday boy has been in a serious car accident. "So Much Water Close to Home" is about three fishermen who refuse to allow their weekend in a remote spot to be disturbed by the body of a nude, murdered woman in their fishin' hole. They tether the body to a tree and keep on castin'. (This is a story that no longer makes sense in the era of cell phones but, as it was told, they would have had to hike four hours to the nearest phone.)

    • In the other source stories, Altman modified and combined the original characters and plots.

    • In another case, Altman simply made up a story that seemed to belong in Carver's world. One part of the film portrays the relationship between a selfish, aging jazz singer and her haunted, cellist daughter. The daughter is obviously in need of attention from the mother and from some mental health professionals, but the self-absorbed mother can't see how serious the problem is because she views life through the prism of her own boozy remembrances. (Frankly, the film could easily have dispensed with this story and those two characters.)


  • Step 2: Altman interwove the stories.

The only thing holding the stories together originally was a theme of modern alienation. Altman wove the formerly unrelated stories together. In effect, he formed a cinematic novel from the short stories. The car which struck the little boy was driven by the diner waitress, for example. Each story formed a some kind of link to some other story once Altman and his co-author added the transitions and connections. Sometimes the links are tight, but sometimes a main character from one story just shows up as a background player in another story. Sometimes the sub-plots have a resolution, sometimes they are open-ended and just drift off when the film's focus shifts to other characters

Altman then placed what he had stitched together into a definite time and place - in Los Angeles, not in the Washington apple country, in a period of a few days, starting with a medfly scare and ending with a strong earthquake.

Altman and his co-author, Frank Barhydt, did a tremendous job on the script, and that makes the film work. Very effectively. If the script had been awarded as the "Best Sceenplay Adapted from Another Medium", I would not have breathed one peep of protest. It is that good. Its only weakness is a melodramatic tendency to take the easy road to audience sympathy, with dying children and bloody murders and the like. I forgave that tendency toward the operatic because the film was so good at handling so many real moments in people's lives, and because it has a lot of wicked humor to balance off the bathos.

The Academy chose to nominate Altman as Best Director, but ignored his screenplay. The Golden Globes had it the other way around, which makes more sense to me. Having already heaped encomium on the film, I have to add that Altman the director was not nearly as effective as Altman the screenwriter.

There are some really sloppy moments here. Altman has never really learned how to film an action scene. Let's face it, that's not his thing and normally wouldn't matter, but it causes some confusion here. Two examples come to mind (1) Chris Penn beats a girl to death far from the camera (I think), but I couldn't really tell if that is what was happening. We later hear an announcer say that the girl was a casualty of the earthquake. But two people, including her girlfriend, saw him beating her, didn't they? Why didn't they report it? I didn't get it. (2) In the car accident, it is obvious - make that VERY obvious - that the car stopped as much as ten feet away from the boy.  Since the script required the youngster to walk away from the accident, I thought that she didn't hit him at all.

As far as I can see, there was no artistic reason to make these scenes ambiguous. They are just not filmed very well. Altman should have brought in a consultant who knows about such things.


  • Julianne Moore shows her red pubic hair and her bum.
  • Madeleine Stowe shows her breasts in two scenes.
  • Lori Singer does a full-frontal nude scene, albeit seen through a fence and far from the camera.
  • Frances McDorman is seen topless and naked from the side. Her bum and pubic hair are seen in a quick glimpse.
  • The anonymous murder victim shows her breasts and pubic area, but she's underwater
  • Huey Lewis is seen peeing, and his penis appears to be on camera, but he's a long way from the lens.
  • Fred Wards butt is seen very briefly as he climbs under the sheets.

In addition, I get very irritated by Altman's obsession with non-actors and bad actors. I don't know if he thinks these people bring some kind of street cred or something, but they often get stuck messing up a good scene by acting like a deer in the headlights. The most egregious example in this case was Lyle Lovett, who walked and talked like Robby the Robot. Altman had some great actors in the film: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Julianne Moore, Jack Lemmon, Bruce Davison, and Frances McDormand, to name a few. When the good actors are on screen, this film absolutely sparkles. I mean it just grabs your heart. The scene between Jack Lemmon and Bruce Davison is made emotionally rich by the pauses and nuances that good actors create. But one of the most powerful scenes on paper  - the confrontation between the angry baker and the angrier mother of the dead child - is really ruined by the fact that the two actors are Lyle Lovett, a non-actor, and Andie MacDowell, who is not much better. I really wish that Altman would abandon his fascination with non-actors, and I wish he would keep his potential over-actors (Tim Robbins, Matthew Modine, Madeleine Stowe, and Fred Ward, for example) under better control.

DVD info from Amazon

The Criterion DVD is a beauty. Just about everything you could possibly want.

  • Disk 1 is a newly remastered high definition transfer of the film. Widescreen anamorphic.

  • Disk 2 has numerous features: some short deleted scenes, the trailers and ads, new conversations between Altman and Tim Robbins, a feature-length "making of" documentary, a PBS documentary on the life of Raymond Carver, a BBC segment on the development of the screenplay, a hour-long radio interview with Carver, and more.

  • The package also includes a souvenir booklet written by a top film critic, and the complete paperback version of the Carver short stories.


Finally, the film is more than three hours long. It surprises me that Altman couldn't find anything to cut, because I'll betcha I could knock out 20 minutes from it, show it to people who have seen it, and they'd never know it was missing. The drunken, washed-up lounge singer warbles song after song in real time, while she is in the story's focus rather than in background. She could easily be shown singing the first few bars, followed by a change of focus to the conversations in the lounge. Not only would you never notice the change, but the film would probably be better because ... well, a little bit of her singing goes a long way. She began her singing career in 1937, and this film was made in 1993. I know she was supposed to be over the hill, but that point can be inferred about ten seconds after she opens her mouth.

I guess I'm quibbling. I like this movie. A lot. Even at 187 minutes of meandering plotting, I rarely lost interest in it. In fact, the only time I lost interest was during Annie Ross's interminable songs. The actual character interaction is fascinating. If you liked Magnolia or American Beauty, but would like a little more humor mixed in, this is your kind of film.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: four stars. James Berardinelli said 3.5/4, but a very strong 3.5, since he placed it in his annual Top 10 list. Roger Ebert went all the way with 4/4.

  • Altman received an Oscar nomination for Best Director, Altman and Barhydt were nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay.

The People Vote ...

  • Despite all the four star reviews, it grossed only $6 million.

Miscellaneous ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. It is a terrific movie, but it is a critic's movie and a film buff's movie, not a people's movie. If you score the critical reviews on a scale from 0 to 10, it is a 9. If you score the box office the same way, it is a 1. I like it more than my C+ would indicate, but the box office numbers show that it obviously has very little appeal beyond the hardcore Altman fans. It entered the theaters buttressed by many, many four star reviews, and did virtually nothing at the box office. I would love to call it a B, but the people have spoken. 

Return to the Movie House home page