(director/writer: Robert Altman; screenwriters: based on the stories by Raymond Carver/Frank Barhydt; cinematographer: Walt Lloyd; editor: Geraldine Peroni; music: Mark Isham; cast: Andie MacDowell (Ann Finnigan), Bruce Davison (Howard Finnigan), Jack Lemmon (Paul Finnigan), Julianne Moore (Marian Wyman), Matthew Modine (Dr. Ralph Wyman), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lois Kaiser), Chris Penn (Jerry Kaiser), Lili Taylor (Honey Bush), Robert Downey Jr. (Bill Bush), Madeleine Stowe (Sherri Shepard), Tim Robbins (Gene Shepard), Frances McDormand (Betty Weathers), Peter Gallagher (Stormy Weathers), Lori Singer (Zoe Trainer), Lili Tomlin (Doreen Piggot), Tom Waits (Earl Piggot), Lyle Lovett (Andy Bitkower), Buck Henry (Gordon Johnson), Huey Lewis (Vern Miller), Zane Cassidy (Casey Finnigan), Annie Ross (Tess Trainer), Fred Ward (Stuart Kane), Anne Archer (Claire Kane); Runtime: 186; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Cary Brokaw; Criterion Collection, The; 1993)

“We are never made to care much about the afflicted characters because Altman doesn’t and thereby the stories carry very little weight.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Robert Altman (“Nashville”/”MASH”/”Popeye”)offers 22 characters in plot-lines adapted from 9 short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver. This ambitious project is co-written by Altman and Frank Barhydt, and is turned into a black comedy over the human condition and tells how strangely people behave. Though entertaining in a diverting way and the technical accomplishment of putting together such an unwieldy storyline in such a coherent way shows a filmmaker who is a master of his craft, the story itself is merely the stuff of soap operas and lacked the depth of Carver’s stories. The tale is set in Southern California among various couples undergoing varying amounts of tensions in their relationships and their stories are told in vignettes that are marginally interconnected. The fine cast is virtually a who’s who of Hollywood, who do a good job considering how the material is so slight.

Helicopters overhead spray against a medfly infestation in the LA area, while a bluesy jazz-like riff runs through the nervous city. Middle-aged diner waitressDoreen (Lily Tomlin) is trying to keep intact her rocky marriage with her irresponsible alcoholic chauffeur hubby Earl (Tom Waits), when she drives into an eight-year-old named Casey Finnegan (Zane Cassidy) because she’s distracted. Fortunately for the guilt-racked waitress the kid seems to be alright, as he declines her help to drive him home and instead walks home alone. While at the hospital his parents, the housewife Ann (Andie MacDowell) and the popular TV newscaster Howard Finnegan (Bruce Davison), were preparing for their son’s upcoming birthday party, fret when he falls into a coma and remains that way for most of the story.Howard’s estranged insensitive elderly dad (Jack Lemmon) visits the hospital and unsuccessfully tries to explain after not seeing Howard all these years that it wasn’t his fault Howard’s mother divorced him because he was caught screwing her sister. The arrogant surgeon Dr. Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine) treating Casey is preoccupied with his personal problems, as he still suspects that his painter wife Marian (Julianne Moore) had an affair with an artist friend a while ago and has built up a jealous rage against her that is now reaching a boiling point. But the couple put aside their bickering to entertain guests, friends of Marian, for a barbecue dinner of trout. Hard-working baker Andy Bitkower (Lyle Lovett) gets pissed off when he phones about Casey’s birthday cake pickup and is rudely rebuffed by Howard. Instead of letting things go about the no show patrons, the baker makes sinister calls to Ann. Runaround LA motorcycle cop Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins) is married to Sherri (Madeleine Stowe), who is a nude model for Marian. Gene shies away from home because of his noisy three little children and barking little dog, and is having an affair with single parent Betty Weathers (Frances McDormand). Her jealous ex-husband is the helicopter pilot Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher), busy spraying the city because of the medfly problem. Stormy is so upset that his wife is seeing someone else that after spying on her he wrecks her house, dividing up the communal property literally with a chain saw. Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn) is the horny psycho pool-cleaner, whose wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works her phone-sex job while changing her baby’s diaper. But to his chagrin, she refuses to talk dirty during their sexual encounters. Jerry’s best pal is sociopathic makeup artist Bill (Robert Downey Jr.), who is married to Doreen’s daughter Honey (Lili Taylor). Other stories include three horrid middle-aged men (Buck Henry, Huey Lewis and Fred Ward) who while on a trout fishing expedition discover in the river the corpse of a woman and do not report it until the next day because they didn’t want to miss out on a day of fishing. The wife of one of the fishermen is a children’s clown (Anne Archer), who finds her hubby’s action reprehensible and treats him with scorn. The suicidal Zoe (Lori Singer) is an athletic classical musician who cannot connect with her embittered jazz singer mother, Tess (Annie Ross), who hasn’t gotten over that her flighty musician husband left her when Zoe was 6 and later committed suicide.

Altman offers a gloomy cynical view of life for his selected white middle-class Los Angeles inhabitants, almost all of whom are not likable and who can’t escape their mundane life entrapments except through taking unethical short cuts. We observe their lies, their shortcomings, their infidelities, the environmental hazards of living in LA, and the tragedies they face, but we are never made to care much about the afflicted characters because Altman doesn’t and thereby the stories carry very little weight.