NEW YORK — ROBERT ALTMAN'S directing career has been as wild and woolly as any of his movies. The saga continues in ``Short Cuts,'' opening in theaters after a New York Film Festival premiere.
Based on stories by the late Raymond Carver, the new movie is as ambitious and audacious as anything Altman has done. Early buzz on the picture - bolstered by the filmmaker's own pronouncements - hailed it as a stunning achievement that would renew his former reputation as a towering film artist.
Unfortunately, the buzz was exaggerated. ``Short Cuts'' is a daring but flawed achievement, diluting its emotional power and satirical bite with a self-consciously jagged structure and a calculating, sometimes chilly undertone. It also has enough nudity and sexually explicit language to turn off many moviegoers.
While it's a fine advertisement for Altman's energy and ingenuity, it leaves his sense of humanity lagging well behind.
Altman is no newcomer to critical controversy. After years of scarcely recognized work in movies and television, he burst into prominence with the original ``M*A*S*H,'' an influential 1970 satire on military life. Strikingly experimental in its use of widescreen composition and multitrack sound, it paved the way for even bolder innovations in ``McCabe and Mrs. Miller'' and ``The Long Goodbye,'' among other unconventional projects.
``Nashville,'' with its huge cast of characters and intricate counterpoint of image and sound, is generally considered his masterpiece. It has also haunted his career for the past 18 years, during which he has made a large number of films - from stage adaptations to TV movies - that failed to impress most critics a fraction as much as his country-music classic did.
Last year Altman released ``The Player,'' a pitch-black comedy about skullduggery in the movie world, and critics rightly agreed it was his best movie in ages. True, its sound is not as stunningly complex as that of ``Nashville,'' and its cinematic jokes - such as the long, meandering shot that opens the story - sometimes seem more tricky than revealing. But it's a whale of a picture anyway, skewering Hollywood hypocrisy with an authority that only a bona fide maverick like Altman could claim.
``Short Cuts'' is an attempt to blend the ferocious humor of ``The Player'' with the flamboyant cinematics of ``Nashville,'' telling a number of intercut tales with no fewer than 22 significant characters. By adapting and sometimes drastically changing the Carver stories from which the screenplay is drawn, Altman tries for an impressive diversity of dramatic moods and emotional rhythms.
Some narrative lines are poignant and even tragic, as when parents grieve over an injured child or an alcoholic mother tries to cope with her disturbed daughter. Others have humorous touches, as when a distracted husband feuds with the family dog or two mismatched couples try for a fun evening together. Still others have a hint of mystery, as when a trio of fishermen stumble across a corpse or a painfully dull man bursts inexplicably into violence.
THE best of these tales are very affecting, brought alive by inventive camera work and imaginative acting. The story of the injured child and his hard-pressed parents, played by Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell, is the most powerful example - not merely well-made, but deeply felt by Altman and his collaborators.
Few of the other tales have a similar impact, however, and the reason is built into the basic conception of the film. By switching back and forth among the different stories, Altman succeeds in fostering a sense of dispassionate observation and ironic juxtaposition. But he also succeeds in preventing us from engaging with the characters' lives and feelings. Every time the opportunity arises for deep involvement, the movie skips into a different groove and asks us to start all over again.
There's nothing automatically wrong with this approach. Bertolt Brecht, who developed some of the greatest theories on modern dramatic technique, applauded the ``alienation effect'' as a way of prodding audiences to think about stories and characters, instead of being swept uncritically away by their feelings.
The trouble with ``Short Cuts'' is that when you do think about it, you realize it isn't very profound or insightful. At best, it's clever. At worst, it's too clever by half.
And occasionally it's downright cheap. I think Altman is as reputable an artist as Carver, and I support his right to rejigger Carver's stories for cinematic purposes. But too many of his changes seem geared to sensationalizing Carver's material. Where the author gives us an injury, the filmmaker gives us a death; where the author gives us an enigmatic phone call, the filmmaker gives us an obsessive phone caller; where the author gives us a self-absorbed fishing party, the filmmaker gives us a disgusting display of macho posing.
Carver was a literary minimalist in the vein of Donald Barthelme and Gordon Lish, with an instinctive awareness that less is truly more. By contrast, Altman is feeling his oats these days. Understatement is not among his priorities and that's too bad, given the source material he has chosen to work with.
He apparently intends his new movie as a statement on the fractured American condition in our postmodern age. But while he wove the fragments of ``Nashville'' into a seamless fabric, he scatters those of ``Short Cuts'' in too many directions with too little discipline. To watch ``Nashville'' is to study a tapestry. To watch ``Short Cuts'' is to spin the dial on your TV set.
Despite these difficulties, ``Short Cuts'' has the asset of a huge and lustrous cast. Its most impressive members include Matthew Modine as an insecure physician; Madeleine Stowe as a beleaguered wife; Tim Robbins as her cocky husband; Annie Ross as an aging jazz singer; Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin as an odd couple; Robert Downey Jr. as an aspiring cosmetics expert; and Buck Henry as a happy camper. Others range from Chris Penn, who can pack enormous expressivity into a single facial expression, to Jack Lemmon, who's more impressive in his wordless final shot than in a long and windy speech that precedes it.
Frank Barhydt collaborated with Altman on the screenplay, and Walt Lloyd did the cinematography, which varies in quality from scene to scene. Geraldine Peroni handled the complicated editing. The music is by veteran composer Mark Isham.
* ``Short Cuts'' has an * rating. It contains a great deal of nudity and sexually explicit language as well as scenes of violence and illness.