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Altman's Latest Falls Shy of the Mark

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 1993


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.

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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.