Exploding 10 of Raymond Carver's spare stories and minimally drawn characters onto the screen with startling imagination, Robert Altman has made his most complex and full-bodied human comedy since Nashville.

Exploding 10 of Raymond Carver’s spare stories and minimally drawn characters onto the screen with startling imagination, Robert Altman has made his most complex and full-bodied human comedy since Nashville.

Crisscrossing 22 significant characters, this is a bemused contemplation of the unaccountable way people behave when fate deals them unexpected hands, embracing everything from slapstick comedy to devastating tragedy.

They include married couple Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell, whose young son is hit by a car driven by waitress Lily Tomlin, a trailer park denizen whose marriage to chauffeur Tom Waits has hit choppy water. Attending to the injured boy is doctor Matthew Modine, who still wonders if artist wife Julianne Moore had an affair a few years back. They meet married couple Anne Archer, who works as a clown at children’s parties, and Fred Ward at a concert and invite them to dinner, but first Ward is due to take a fishing trip with buddies Buck Henry and Huey Lewis, during which they make the shocking discovery of a dead woman’s body in the water.

Performing at the concert is classical cellist Lori Singer, a loner whose mother Annie Ross sings jazz and ballads at a local club. Among the hangout’s habitues are pool serviceman Chris Penn and wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, who indelibly gives phone sex from home while feeding her kids, and their friends Robert Downey Jr, a special-effects makeup artist, and Lili Taylor, who make the most of a housesitting opportunity.

Medfly chopper pilot Peter Gallagher has split from wife Frances McDormand, who in turn has been having an affair with LA cop Tim Robbins, whose wife Madeleine Stowe models for Moore.

As in any multi-episode film, some vignettes work better than others. The price it pays for being an observant character piece, rather than narrative-driven, is that its length is fully felt.

Altman and lenser Walt Lloyd keep the camera alertly moving but simple, often starting with establishing shots, then closing in on the actors. Editor Geraldine Peroni has done a stupendous job juggling the story lines, never losing sight of one for too long, and expertly judging when to resume another.

Mark Isham’s effective score is abetted by a torrent of source music, notably Ross’s throaty jazz vocals and Singer’s cello playing.

For the record, the Carver stories drawn upon are ‘Jerry and Molly and Sam,’ ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?,’ ‘Collectors,’ ‘Neighbours,’ ‘A Small Good Thing,’ ‘So Much Water So Close to Home,’ ‘They’re Not Your Husband,’ ‘Vitamins’ and ‘Tell the Women We’re Going,’ and the narrative poem ‘Lemonade.’

1993: Nomination: Best Director

Short Cuts

Production

Avenue/Spelling. Director Robert Altman; Producer Cary Brokaw; Screenplay Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt; Camera Walt Lloyd; Editor Geraldine Peroni; Music Mark Isham; Art Director Stephen Altman

Crew

(Color) Widescreen. Available on VHS, DVD. Extract of a review from 1993. Running time: 184 MIN.

With

Andie MacDowell Tim Robbins Chris Penn Julianne Moore Anne Archer Jack Lemmon
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