The lives of 22 inhabitants of LA are woven through this film, the stories are occasionally funny, occassionally shocking and occasionally interconnecting. Themes of family, love, sex and death all run through this caustic adaptation of Raymond Carver's writing.
At 69, the venerable Robert Altman is on wickedly irreverent, misanthropic form, following up The Player with his most complex, kaleidoscopic slices-of-life picture since Nashville. Adapted from a collection of Raymond Carver's distinctively downbeat short stories although Carver suggested more empathy with his people than Altman can muster it's a masterful collage of Los Angeles as a madhouse, echoing, but vastly improving upon, Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon.
Embodying society's ills, 22 key characters' lives parallel or interconnect comically, tragically, and very bizarrely through everyday incidents, work, sex, blood relations, swimming pools, lies, an abandoned dog, murder, suicide and even an earthquake. Weary waitress Lily Tomlin, for example, runs down the son of upscale housewife Andie MacDowell and TV commentator Bruce Davison, necessitating the skills of surgeon Matthew Modine while oblivious baker Lyle Lovett is icing the child's birthday cake. Jennifer Jason Leigh sells phone sex while husband Chris Penn cleans pools, and cop Tim Robbins issues traffic tickets when he isn't bedding Peter Gallagher's ex-wife, Frances McDormand, or abusing his own wife, Madeleine Stowe.
Round and round they go in smoggy suburban Sodom to a jazzy soundtrack under Altman's sharp, malevolent gaze, like synchronised swimmers being swept together towards cataclysmically spectacular falls. The hectic company rewarded jointly for their work at the Venice Film Festival is a be-there-or-be-square ensemble that ranges from Jack Lemmon to Robert Downey Jnr., to musicians Lovett, Tom Waits, Huey Lewis and Annie Ross (whose mother-daughter strand in the proceedings, with Lori Singer as her unhappy, weird offspring, is the one that doesn't mesh entirely satisfactorily with the other "prisoners of life").
In its eventful, almost entirely gripping three hours of satirising vice and folly, this is guaranteed to offend some with its parade of oppressed, depressed or gratuitously naked women and selfish, obsessed or otherwise awful men. More, however, are bound to be struck by the penetration and skill with which Altman has pulled off a heartless but heady and very happening film.
Cool, clever and complex, Altman succeeds in bringing out the best from a highly talented cast.