Film: Short Cuts

Short Cuts is a 1993 film that is directed by Robert Altman. This is a Hyperlink Story following 23 "ordinary" people, including eight couples, a mother and daughter, two fishermen, a grandfather, a baker, and a little kid, who go through their ordinary lives but several end in death. Each story thread has loose connections with some of the others, and most are unresolved at the end. The film was based off of nine short stories ("Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?", "Jerry and Molly and Sam", "Neighbors", "They're Not Your Husband", "Collectors", "Tell the Women We're Going", "So Much Water So Close to Home", "Vitamins", and "A Small, Good Thing") and a poem ("Lemonade") written by Raymond Carver.

As the film opens, helicopters are spraying pesticide to combat a medfly infestation in Greater Los Angeles, during which we are introduced to the main characters. KCAL-TV pundit Howard Finnigan (Bruce Davison) and his wife Ann (Andie MacDowell) have ordered an expensive custom birthday cake from baker Andy Bitkower (Lyle Lovett) for their son Casey, but when he is hit by a car on his way to school and later goes into a coma, he is rushed to hospital, and the cake is forgotten, causing the oblivious but enraged Bitkower to start leaving abusive messages on the Finnigans' answering machine. In the hospital, Howard has an awkward reunion with his father Paul (Jack Lemmon), whom he has not seen since his parents divorced nearly thirty years earlier.

Next door to the Finnigans are jazz singer Tess Trainer (Annie Ross) and her cellist daughter Zoe (Lori Singer); relations between them are difficult due to Tess' alcoholism and Zoe's growing depression. At a concert given by Zoe's chamber ensemble attended by Alex Trebek and his mother, the audience includes hospital doctor Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine) and his artist wife Marian (Julianne Moore). They strike up a conversation with the couple sitting next to them, unemployed salesman Stuart Kane (Fred Ward) and his party clown wife Claire (Anne Archer); the Wymans spontaneously invite the Kanes to dinner the following Sunday, with Stuart promising to bring the best catch from his upcoming fishing weekend. The Wymans' marriage is strained due to an adulterous affair Marian had some years earlier, while the Kanes' marriage is tested when Stuart and his fishing buddies Gordon Johnson (Buck Henry) and Vern Miller (Huey Lewis) discover a dead body on their trip and wait until they return three days later to inform the police, to Claire's disgust.

Marian's sister Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) is married to highway patrolman Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins); she is aware of his many extramarital affairs, but seems to enjoy listening to the far-fetched lies he tells to cover them up. Frustrated by the barking of the family dog, Suzy, Gene puts him in the compartment on the side of his motorcycle and leaves him by the side of the road, but has a change of heart when he sees how upset his children are at Suzy's disappearance. One of Gene's lovers is Betty Weathers (Frances McDormand), who is in the process of divorcing her husband, Stormy (Peter Gallagher), one of the pilots spraying for medflies. When she leaves with their young son Chad for a weekend with yet another boyfriend, airline pilot Wally, Stormy lets himself into their house and proceeds to take "division of assets" to its logical extreme by chainsawing every piece of furniture in the house in half except his mother's grandfather clock and Chad's television.

The driver of the car that hit Casey, waitress Doreen Piggot (Lily Tomlin), is in an on-off marriage with alcoholic limo driver Earl (Tom Waits), whom she thinks may have molested Honey (Lili Taylor), her daughter from a previous marriage. Honey's husband Bill Bush (Robert Downey Jr.) is studying to be a make-up artist, and when another couple in their apartment building, Jim and Harriet Stone, ask them to housesit for them for a month, Bill takes the opportunity to voyeuristically look through their belongings. The Bushes' friend Jerry Kaiser (Chris Penn) is the Finnigans' pool cleaner; his wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) operates a phone sex line out of their home, indulging her customers' desires while changing diapers (to the frustration of Jerry, who wonders why she never talks like that to him).

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director and won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. It currently holds a 94% on RottenTomatoes.

Not to be confused with the manga Short Cuts.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming:
    • Paul Finnigan has been estranged from his son Howard for so long that he doesn't know Howard's son's name, initially referring to him as Kevin rather than Casey.
    • At the concert by Zoe's chamber ensemble, Marian spots Alex Trebek in the audience and points him out to Claire, who is sitting on the other side of her from Ralph. The conversation quickly leads to Marian inviting Claire and Stuart to dinner, even though, as Ralph points out to Marian, they are total strangers. When they arrive for dinner, Ralph is still vague on their details and initially addresses Stuart as Steven.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Some of the original stories had characters removed or plots condensed for the screenplay.
    • Ralph and Marian Wyman from "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" have two children; in the film, they have none. The original story follows Ralph after the revelation of Marian's affair as goes to a bar and ends up losing all the money he has on him in first a poker game and then a mugging; in the film, Marian's confession happens while they are waiting for the Kanes to arrive, and he simply spends the evening needling her over it. Condensing their story arc in this way allows Ralph and Marian more screentime to play supporting roles in the Finnigans' story and the Shepards' story, respectively, as well as making it easier to merge their story with that of the Kanes in the film's final third.
    • "So Much Water So Close to Home" features examples of both distillation and expansion. Stuart and Claire's son Dean was dropped for the film, as was Mel Dorn, one of Stuart's fishing companions. However, giving Stuart only two fishing companions made it easier to write the fishing trip into the film (in the story, Claire narrates a summary of the trip after Stuart's return). The film also dropped the encounter between Claire and a creepy pickup truck driver when she is driving to the dead girl's funeral.
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • The original stories did not share characters (and were not originally published in the same anthology as each other, although an anthology of the relevant stories was published as a tie-in to the film); the connections between the players in the various subplots were invented for the film. Altman explained in interviews that he saw Raymond Carver's stories as part of the same world, and tied them together accordingly.
    • Some of the short stories had their plots expanded upon for the film. For example, "Collectors" tells of a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman's encounter with an unemployed man who may or may not own the house the door of which he has answered; this was expanded into the Stormy and Betty subplot. Meanwhile, "They're Not Your Husband" has a salesman stop by the diner at which his wife is a waitress and overhear other patrons making lewd remarks about her; this was expanded into the Earl and Doreen subplot. And Howard's father does not appear in "A Small, Good Thing"; the subplot of Paul's visit to the Finnigans in hospital was created by Altman.
    • The characters of Tess and Zoe Trainer were invented for the screenplay. Altman said in the film's press releases that he tried to create them in Carver's style, and that Tess' name was a tribute to Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Most of the characters had their names changed for the film. Howard, Ann, and Scotty Weiss from "A Small, Good Thing" become Howard, Ann, and Casey Finnigan, Bill and Linda Jamison from "Tell the Women We're Going" and Bill and Arlene Miller from "Neighbors" are combined into the characters of Bill and Honey Bush, Jerry Roberts from "Tell the Women We're Going" becomes Jerry Kaiser, Patti from "Vitamins" becomes Lois, Al and Betty from "Jerry and Molly and Sam" become Gene and Sherri, Earl and Doreen Ober from "They're Not Your Husband" become Earl and Doreen Piggot, and "Mr. Slater" from "Collectors" becomes Stormy Weathers.
  • The Alcoholic: Many of the characters in the film get drunk at least once, but several have adopted alcohol as a lifestyle choice.
    • Tess Trainer spends more time and energy getting drunk than trying to connect with her daughter, who is on a downward spiral of depression and isolation.
    • Earl Piggot is frequently drunk, and his conduct while drunk (such as "slobbering" over his stepdaughter Honey) leads to frequent bust-ups between him and his wife Doreen.
  • Bad Liar: Extramarital lovers Gene Shepard and Betty Weathers are well-matched, as they are both pathological liars... and spectacularly bad at being convincing in so doing.
    • Gene tries to cover up one of his trysts with Betty by telling Sherri that he is fighting drug dealers selling cocaine to children, and that any further details might put the lives of her and the children at risk. Sherri doesn't believe him for a moment. Nor does she believe him when she finds a piece of paper with Claire Kane's phone number in his pocket and he tries to claim that she is a drug dealer nicknamed "the Clown" who is wanted in three states.
    • While out for dinner to celebrate her birthday, Betty tells Gene that she cannot spend the weekend with him because she is visiting her sister in Lake Tahoe (she is actually going away with her other boyfriend, Wally); when Gene says her sister Phyllis lives in Michigan, she says this is her other sister Bunny, her "half-stepsister". She also goes from saying the arrangement was made a week ago to saying it was made a year ago. She avoids answering when Gene asks if Bunny is married and what she does for a living, and when he asks Chad about visiting his Aunt Bunny, he clearly has no idea what Gene is talking about, which Betty tries to cover by saying Chad is too young to remember her.
  • Big "NO!": Tess Trainer lets out a massive one when she comes home after a set at the jazz club and opens the garage to find that Zoe has committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Book Ends: The film opens with press coverage of the medfly infestation in Los Angeles and the helicopters spraying pesticide to combat it, and several characters are seen watching Howard's opinion piece about it on the local news. It ends with press coverage of the earthquake that rattles the city at the end of the film and is blamed for the death of the girl Jerry kills while on a family picnic with the Bushes, and several characters are seen watching Stormy being interviewed about seeing the earthquake from his helicopter.
  • Comically Small Bribe: Bill and Honey's neighbours, Jim and Harriet, take them out for drinks at the jazz club at which Tess Trainer performs in exchange for feeding their fish for a month while they are away. Bill uses this lopsided exchange to justify voyeuristically looking through their belongings (including their "adult literature") and having sex with Honey on their bed.
  • Composite Character: Condensing and integrating nine disparate short stories leads to several instances of this.
    • Betty, Al's wife in "Jerry and Molly and Sam", is mentioned as having a sister named Sandi who gave the family the dog Al abandons by the side of the road. Al and Betty's counterparts in the film are Gene and Sherri Shepard; Sherri's sister is Marian Wyman, one of the main characters of "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?".
    • Bill Bush combines elements of Bill Miller from "Neighbors", who housesits for the couple next door and voyeuristically looks through their belongings, and Bill Jamison from "Tell the Women We're Going", who at the urging of his friend Jerry Roberts pursues two teenage girls (in the film, pursuing the girls is Bill's idea). Honey is likewise a combination of Arlene Miller from "Neighbors" and Linda Jamison from "Tell the Women We're Going".
    • Jerry and Lois Kaiser are a combination of the unnamed narrator of "Vitamins" and his wife Patti, the former of whom is uncomfortable with the business the latter is running out of their home, and Jerry and Carol Roberts from "Tell the Women We're Going", the former of whom suddenly kills one of the girls he and Bill pursue by hitting her with a rock.
  • Crossover: Robert Altman saw Raymond Carver's short stories as parts of a whole, and so the screenplay is a massive crossover between them:
    • Ralph and Marian from "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" have dinner with Stuart and Claire from "So Much Water So Close to Home".
    • Ralph is one of the doctors treating the son of Howard and Ann from "A Small, Good Thing".
    • Marian's sister (and occasional artist's model) is Sherri, the film version of Betty from "Jerry and Molly and Sam".
    • Stuart and his fishing buddies are the diner customers whom Earl overhears making lewd remarks toward Doreen from "They're Not Your Husband", who was driving the car that hit Howard and Ann's son.
    • Doreen's daughter Honey is the equivalent of Arlene Miller from "Neighbors".
    • Bill Bush is a Composite Character of Bill Miller from "Neighbors" and Bill Jamison from "Tell the Women We're Going", so he both housesits with his wife for the more affluent couple next door and pursues two teenage girls with Jerry even though both men are married.
    • Jerry from "Tell the Women We're Going" is married to Lois, the equivalent of Patti from "Vitamins"; Howard and Ann from "A Small, Good Thing" are among the customers of his pool cleaning business.
    • Betty Weathers, the film's version of Al's lover Jill from "Jerry and Molly and Sam", is going through a messy divorce from Stormy, the counterpart of "Mr. Slater" from "Collectors"; early in the film, Stormy visits the bakery from "A Small, Good Thing" to buy a birthday cake for Betty.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: Halfway through the film, Zoe fixes Tess a Veggie Mary (a Bloody Mary with V8 rather than tomato juice) and, out of frustration at her mother's unwillingness to communicate with her, abruptly smashes the glass against the bottom of the sink, slicing her right hand open. At her next rehearsal with her chamber ensemble, one of her ensemblemates asks her about the injury, and she claims to have fallen while carrying a breakfast tray up to her mother (leading to the revelation that she has told them Tess is terminally ill).
  • Despair Event Horizon: When the film opens, Zoe Trainer is already so clinically depressed as to feign committing suicide by drowning on a regular basis. The last straw comes when the boy next door, Casey Finnigan, dies in hospital after being hit by a car and Zoe's mother, with whom she has tried unsuccessfully to communicate for years, barely seems to care. Zoe goes into the garage and plays her cello one last time while running her car's engine to give herself carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Dirty Cop: Gene Shepard mostly uses his badge as an excuse to pull over attractive women and ask them for dates. At one point, he pulls Claire over, ostensibly for driving too slowly, but asks her for her phone number, since "you never know when you might need the services of a clown".
  • Disappeared Dad:
    • Howard's parents divorced when his mother found his father, Paul, in bed with her sister Olla. They've hardly spoken since, even though Paul only lives in Riverside, less than an hour's drive from Howard, and when Paul unexpectedly shows up at the hospital where Casey is being treated, he knows so little about his son's family that he ends up talking about himself and the "truth" of his affair with Olla.
    • Chick Trainer, Tess' husband and Zoe's father, died of a heroin overdose when Zoe was very young. Part of the reason for the growing distance between Tess and Zoe is the former's reluctance to talk about Chick and the latter's desire to know more about the father she can't remember.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: In the scene in which Zoe's ensemblemates ask about her hand injury, she claims she dropped her mother's breakfast tray (she actually smashed a glass into the sink in a fit of despair). The exchange that follows reveals that she has told her fellow musicians that her mother is terminally ill; whether this is true or (more likely) just a lie Zoe is telling to dodge the shame of Tess' alcoholism, the terminal illness in her version of events is never identified.
  • Disposing of a Body: It happens offscreen, but the body found by Stuart's group of fishermen. It is implied that her killer was Jerry Kaiser.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: Stormy Weathers, facing an impending messy divorce from his wife Betty, shows up on her doorstep demanding his mother's grandfather clock, and he notes that he has paid for half of the house, so half of it should go to him in the divorce. Before he can take the clock, Betty throws him out. He shows up the next day while she and their son Chad have gone away with her boyfriend Wally and saws every piece of their furniture in two except for the clock and Chad's TV (aside from the wood casing). He also smashes her ornaments and knick-knacks with a sledgehammer and cuts her clothes, and everything he finds within the house, with scissors.
  • Dramatic Irony: When Doreen hits Casey with her car, she offers to drive him to the hospital, but he says he has been told not to get in cars with strangers and leaves. Taking the fact that he is able to walk away as a sign that he is unharmed, she drives off and later tells Earl about the incident, expressing relief that they have avoided having their lives turned upside-down. Unbeknownst to Earl and Doreen, Casey has slipped into a coma, and as if to hammer home the irony, in the background a commercial voiceover says that accidents happen every day, and while most are harmless, some are very serious.
  • Driven to Suicide: Zoe Trainer finally collapses under the weight of her emotional isolation and the fact that her mother, Tess, is too drunk to notice her depression. What finally pushes her over the edge is Casey Finnigan's death and Tess' almost indifferent reaction to the news.
  • Dysfunction Junction: There's hardly a functional marriage or family in the film. Howard and Ann Finnigan are emotionally detached (and Howard and his father Paul fell out after the latter was found in bed by his wife with her sister), Ralph Wyman is incensed to learn that Marian had an affair years earlier, Claire Kane is horrified by Stuart's callousness in not reporting the dead body he found on his fishing trip for three days, Jerry Kaiser is jealous of Lois' phone sex clients (even though he can have actual sex with her), Earl and Doreen Piggot fight constantly, Gene Shepard has had so many affairs that Sherri has long since stopped caring, Stormy Weathers commits large-scale property damage to get back at his soon-to-be ex-wife Betty, Bill Bush may not mistreat Honey (though his photos of her bruise make-up lead Gordon to suspect otherwise) but has a roving eye, and Tess and Zoe Trainer have been unable to communicate with each other for years.
  • Ensemble Cast: Each of the nine couples or families gets ample time in the spotlight, so the film doesn't have a single protagonist or even a central family (although the Finnigans get the most screen time). In the introduction, the twenty-two main adult actors' credits appear for four seconds each, staggered so that no more than three are on screen at once.
  • Foreshadowing: At the beginning of the film, Casey Finnigan is woken up by the helicopters spraying for medflies, and tells Howard and Ann he thought it was an earthquake. At the end of the film, an earthquake actually does hit Los Angeles.
  • Four Lines, All Waiting: True to its title, the film cuts back and forth quickly across nine subplots over the course of several days in Greater Los Angeles.
  • Gender-Blender Name:
    • The Shepards' dog, Suzy, is male; his name initially leads Marian to believe he is female when Sherri tells her the dog has run away, and when Marian tells Ralph, he makes the same mistake.
    • When Chad tells Stormy that Betty is spending her birthday with Gene, Stormy initially thinks he has said "Jean" and asks who "she" is.
  • Harmful to Minors:
    • When Gene and Sherri Shepard's daughter enters her parents' room during an intimate session, Gene tries to pretend he just fell asleep on Sherri.
    • Averted with Lois Kaiser's sexual phone calls while feeding the kids or changing the baby's diaper.
  • Harpo Does Something Funny: As always in Altman's films, the actors were given a lot of free rein to improvise at various points in the script. For example, in the scene in which Paul Finnigan and Claire Kane are both at the hospital reception desk, the script said only that Paul performs a trick for Claire. Jack Lemmon later said in an interview for the film's "making of" documentary, Luck, Trust, and Ketchup, that he had been trying to work the trick of blowing an egg from one shotglass into another into a film for years, and was delighted to finally have the opportunity to do so.
  • Heel Realization:
    • After Gene abandons the family dog, Suzy, by the side of the road, seeing the distress Suzy's absence is causing his children hammers home how selfish his actions have been, and he goes out to retrieve him.
    • Andy Bitkower is immediately apologetic when Howard and Ann show up at his bakery to berate him for leaving threatening messages on their answering machine while their son Casey was in a coma and ultimately died in hospital; to make amends, he offers them free baked goods and a sympathetic ear.
  • Hyperlink Story: Each of the nine subplots intersects, sometimes only for a moment, with at least four or five of the others. Just to give a few examples:
    • In the opening sequence, the TV audience for Howard's editorial on the medfly invasion includes the Kaisers and the Shepards, while the audience for Zoe's chamber concert includes the Wymans and the Kanes.
    • Bill and Honey are seen attending a performance by Tess in the opening sequence. Earl stops by the same club for a drink on two occasions later in the film, and on the second evening Bill and Honey are also present with Jerry and Lois; an ex-convict named Joe Robbins whom Earl almost provoked into a fight begins aggressively hitting on Lois.
    • Stuart, Gordon, and Vern stop at the diner at which Doreen is a waitress on their way to their fishing trip and make lewd remarks about her while Earl is sitting just down the counter from them. Later in the film, Gene takes Betty (and Chad) to the diner for Betty's birthday dinner.
    • While Jerry is cleaning the Finnigans' pool, Tess spots him over her balcony and asks if he can stop be to clean her pool as well, as she is concerned about contamination by the pesticide used to kill the medflies.
    • Stormy buys a cake for Betty's birthday from Mr. Bitkower's bakery just as Ann is placing the order for Casey's cake. As Stormy leaves, Claire arrives to pick up a cake for a party at which she is performing.
    • Claire is pulled over (and hit on) by Gene for driving too slowly.
    • Doreen is the driver who hits Casey with her car. In the hospital, Ralph is one of the doctors treating Casey, and when Paul Finnigan shows up, he has a brief conversation with Claire, who is giving a performance in the children's ward.
    • In the Kanes' front garden, there is a real estate agent sign with Betty Weathers' name on it.
  • I Call Him "Mr. Happy": When Betty and Wally are returning from their weekend away, Wally tells her he had a good time, and Betty asks if "little Wally" had a good time as well.
  • Infant Immortality: Subverted when Casey dies from his injuries just as he seems about to wake up from his coma.
  • Ironic Juxtaposition: After Doreen hits Casey with her car and he begins unsteadily walking back home, the camera pans up to a "School crossing" sign with a picture of a parent and child crossing the road.
  • Left Hanging: Though some of the subplots, such as those involving the Finnigans, the Weathers, the Shepards, the Piggots, and the Trainers, end with a definite resolution (if not necessarily a permanent one), others are left up in the air. There is still a lot of tension between Ralph and Marian over the latter's past indiscretion, and between Claire and Stuart over the latter's actions during his fishing weekend (although because all four have spent the night getting drunk together, the tension has been momentarily forgotten), while Jerry has killed a girl and may have also killed the girl found by Stuart and his fishing buddies, but the former death has been ruled an accident and the police haven't connected him to the latter.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Twenty-three major characters (by the film's definition of "major"), including the Finnigans (plus their son Casey and Howard's father), the Wymans, the Kanes, the Kaisers, the Bushes, the Shepards, the Piggots, the Weathers, the Trainers, Andy Bitkower, and Stuart Kane's two fishing buddies Gordon and Vern.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: When Stuart, Gordon, and Vern arrive at the campsite for their fishing weekend, Vern relieves himself into the river, and we are treated to a shot of his genitals through his open fly.
  • Match Cut: Some scene transitions are achieved this way.
    • After Casey Finnigan has been hit by Doreen Piggot's car and Ann discovers him lying comatose on his bed, the camera zooms in on the glass of milk she has brought him; we then cut to Earl and Doreen watching a TV image of a glass of milk spilling as a voiceover declares, "Accidents happen every day. Fortunately, most are harmless, but some are very serious."
    • When Gene tells Sherri that the "Claire Kane the clown" whose phone number she found in his pocket is a criminal wanted in three states, and that by telling her about the sting operation he is planning for her he has endangered the lives of her and the children, she waits until he leaves the room and bursts out laughing at the obvious lie. We immediately cut to one of Marian's paintings of Sherri laughing hanging on the wall of her house.
    • A shot of the dead girl found by Stuart, Gordon, and Vern being tied to the bank so that her body doesn't float away before they can notify the police is immediately followed by a shot of Honey looking through the glass of Jim and Harriet's fishing tank. At the end of the scene, the camera follows one of the fish as it swims around the tank, and we cut back to the three fishermen as each one hooks a trout.
    • The scene in which Ralph has burned Stuart's trout to ashes is bookended by shots of smoke pouring out of the grill. Either side of this scene, there are shots of car exhaust filling the Trainers' garage as Zoe commits suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Meddlesome Patrolman: Gene takes advantage of his uniform to pull over good-looking women and ask them for dates. He also uses it to get back his own dog Suzy, telling the children who have found him (and re-named him Frisbee) that the dog is not only lost but rabid.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Zigzagged in that Betty is cheating on Gene, but not in the way he thinks. When he catches her in an obvious lie about spending the weekend at Lake Tahoe with her "half-stepsister" and then calls her only for Stormy to answer and yell at Betty to put her panties on before hanging up, he shows up outside her house and sees Stormy's car in the driveway and Stormy himself in silhouette through the bedroom window. However, Stormy is simply destroying the contents of the house to get back at Betty during their increasingly ugly divorce, and Betty herself has gone away with her other boyfriend, Wally.
  • Moment Killer: After Jerry expresses frustration that Lois never talks to him the way she talks to her phone sex customers, she says that although she's "all talked out", she's willing to have sex with him. However, just as they are settling in, she realises she has left the television on, and as she leaves the room to switch it off, the even more frustrated Jerry climbs into bed, switches the light off, and goes to sleep.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • After Stuart returns from his fishing trip, Claire is delighted to see him again, and they make love. However, once they have finished, Stuart tells her about the dead girl he and his fishing pals found, and when he says they found her at the beginning of the weekend but decided to fish for three days anyway, Claire's mood shifts completely to white-hot anger.
    • After several days of waiting for Casey to wake up in hospital, Howard and Ann are ecstatic to see his eyes flutter open. Within a few seconds, he stops breathing, triggering a code blue. As the code team rush into the room, Howard's overwhelmed father Paul leaves their lives as suddenly as he returned to them.
  • Named by the Adaptation:
    • The baker who harasses Howard and Ann for not picking up or paying for the birthday cake he spent lots of time and money creating in "A Small, Good Thing" is unnamed. In the film, he is called Andy Bitkower.
    • The narrator of "Collectors" may or may not be Mr. Slater, the owner of the house in which vacuum cleaner salesman Aubrey Bell finds him. In the film, he is unambiguously known as Stormy Weathers (though when he is interviewed on the local news at the end of the film, the Wymans and the Kanes Lampshade his unusual name).
    • In "So Much Water So Close to Home", we do not learn Claire and Stuart's last name, or the name of the dead girl Stuart found on his fishing trip. In the film, Claire and Stuart's last name is Kane, and the dead girl is named Caroline Avery, as Claire icily tells Stuart when he asks if there was anything about "it" (meaning, the discovery of the girl's body) in the paper.
  • Newscaster Cameo: Howard is a pundit for KCAL-TV, an independent Los Angeles station, and when Ann phones him at work to tell him that Casey has been hit by a car, he is at a desk with real life KCAL anchor Jerry Dunphy. At the end of the film, the Wymans and the Kanes switch on Dunphy's coverage of the magnitude 7.4 earthquake that has just shaken the city.
  • Not Cheating Unless You Get Caught: What Gene, the cop, goes by. His wife already knows, but, as she tells her sister, she finds it more amusing to watch him pointlessly try to cover it up.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Gordon, Stuart Kane's fishing buddy, stops by the photo developer to pick up the pictures he took of the dead body they found on their trip at the same time Honey and Bill pick up the pictures Bill took of Honey covered in bruise make-up with a knife tucked under her arm to create the illusion that she has been viciously beaten and stabbed. However, Gordon and the Bushes get each other's pictures, and after they correct their mistake, Honey begins repeating Gordon's number plate while Gordon begins repeating the phone number on the side of Jerry's van as each plans to call the police about the other's "murder".
  • Pants-Free: While arguing with Ralph over her honesty regarding her indiscretion with Mitch Anderson, Marian Wyman spills a glass of wine on her skirt. She hurries into the kitchen to wash the stain out, and after a few moments removes her skirt. It isn't until she emerges from behind the kitchen counter to run a blow dryer over the skirt that both Ralph and the audience notice she isn't wearing underwear.
  • Pedophile Priest: Lois tells Honey that the bishop from her parents' church called her phone sex line asking for an incest scenario involving a four-year-old girl. Lois says she was revolted by the idea, but rationalised going through with the call on the pretext that at least simulating it over the phone made it less likely that he would try the real thing.
  • Please Put Some Clothes On: Ralph twice deals with this. The first time, he walks in on his wife Marian's sister Sherri posing for a nude portrait, and immediately has trouble stringing a sentence together, to the amusement of Marian and Sherri. Later, he finally gets Marian to tell him the truth about her drunken liaison with fellow artist Mitch Anderson as she removes, washes, and blow dries the skirt she just spilled a drink on - revealing that she isn't wearing underwear.
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • After Casey Finnigan is taken to hospital in a coma, the expensive birthday cake they have ordered for him is forgotten. When Andy Bitkower tries to call them for a clarification on the design Ann has drawn for him, Howard, who has left Ann at the hospital to collect some things from home for her and was not present when the cake was ordered, hangs up on him to keep the line free for possible news from Ann about Casey. Bitkower immediately calls back to say he doesn't appreciate being hung up on, and Howard simply hangs up on him again. He tries once more, and the increasingly impatient Howard swears at him and hangs up for the third time. The furious Bitkower proceeds to repeatedly call the Finnigans' answering machine to leave sinister messages while they are at the hospital.
    • In a more minor example, when the Kanes arrive at the Wymans' house for dinner, Stuart gives Ralph a cook time of ten minutes per inch for the trout he has brought. Unfortunately, he means inch of thickness, while Ralph thinks he means inch of length; as the trout is nearly a foot long, he leaves it on the grill for so long that it is burned to a crisp.
  • Relationship Sabotage: Although Betty is already sinking her relationship with Gene by seeing Wally at the same time, Stormy helps to speed things along by undermining their relationship where he can. When he arrives to collect Chad for the evening and learns that the person with whom Betty is spending her birthday is not a woman named Jean but a man named Gene, he tells Chad "something came up" and leaves, forcing Betty to take Chad along on her date and making him a Moment Killer between her and Gene. Later, when Stormy shows up to collect his mother's grandfather clock, Gene tries to call Betty, only for Stormy to answer and pretend to shout at Betty to put her panties on before hanging up.
  • Setting Update: Carver's short stories were written, and set in, the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s in various parts of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. For the film, the stories were moved to early 1990s Los Angeles (Robert Altman and Tess Gallagher explained that they felt the size of the city helped to make the characters' interconnections, or lack thereof, more believable). Some of the characters' professions were updated accordingly; for example, Bill Miller from "Neighbors" is a bookkeeper, while Bill Bush is studying to be a make-up artist, and Patti from "Vitamins" sells vitamin pills, while Lois Kaiser is a phone sex operator.
  • Shout-Out:
    • After the Wymans and the Kanes spot Alex Trebek and his mother in the audience at Zoe's chamber concert, many references to Jeopardy are made, and Marian sets up the Jeopardy! Home Game as an icebreaker after the Kanes arrive for dinner.
    • One of Andy Bitkower's sinister messages on the Finnigans' answering machine consists of the last verse of Ernest Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat", a jab at Ann's request for a baseball-themed cake for Casey's birthday.
    • Chad Weathers is a huge fan of Captain Planet and the Planeteers; he is shown watching it in several scenes and shows off some of the tie-in toys to Stormy and Gene.
    • The room for Bill's make-up art class is lined with posters for various horror films, including The Blob (1988), A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.
    • When Stuart returns home from his fishing weekend, Claire has fallen asleep watching Troma Films' Monster in the Closet on television.
    • As part of his plan to seduce one of the mountain bikers, Barbara, Bill notes that Griffith Park (specifically, the Bronson Canyon area) is the site of the caves that posed as the entrance to the Batcave in the 1960s Batman series, and offers to take her there.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
    • In "A Small, Good Thing", Ann meets an African-American couple whose son, Franklin, was stabbed while in the wrong place at the wrong time at a party; he dies on the operating table. In the film, Franklin is now Brian and was shot while driving on the freeway in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he ultimately recovers.
    • At the end of "Tell the Women We're Going", Jerry kills both of the girls he encourages Bill to pursue with him; in the film, he only kills the one he is pursuing himself, while the girl Bill is pursuing survives.
  • Squick: In an in-universe example, as the Wymans and the Kanes get ever more drunk together, Stuart, drawing on memories of handling the dead body of the girl he and his fishing companions found, asks Ralph if, as a doctor, he has handled many dead bodies. Ralph seems perturbed by the line of questioning.
  • Strangely Arousing: Bill is disturbed by his sexual arousal at the experience of putting bruise make-up on Honey and taking pictures of the results while roleplaying that he has actually beaten her.
  • Trash the Set: In Stormy and Betty's pending divorce, Betty is due to get their house even though, as Stormy points out, he paid for half of it. Since the furniture in the house is also technically still his until the divorce becomes final, he decides that if he's not getting it in the divorce, neither is she, and while she and Chad are away on her dirty weekend with Wally, he reduces the contents of the house (except his mother's grandfather clock) to piles of scrap wood and fabric with a chainsaw, a sledgehammer, a pair of scissors, and various power tools. The film's limited budget meant that only one take was available for the destruction of each piece of furniture.
  • Tuckerization: The characters of Tess and Zoe Trainer were created for the screenplay. Tess is named for Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver's widow and the person with whom Altman negotiated the rights for the stories that formed the script.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: When Betty and Chad return home, Chad barely seems to notice the fact that every piece of furniture in his parents' living room has been completely destroyed except his grandmother's clock, his Tinkertoy model, and enough of the television to leave it functional. He is far more interested in Aubrey Bell's business card wedged in his model and the episode of Captain Planet currently on television.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: This seems to be Jerry's attitude toward his marriage to Lois. He finds himself envying the men who call her phone sex line even though, as her husband, he can have actual physical sex with her.
  • Weirdness Censor: Aubrey Bell, the salesman who shows up at Betty Weathers' house to give her the free carpet cleaning she won in a prize drawing, thinks nothing of Stormy cutting every piece of furniture or clothing in the house in half, simply remarking that in his line of work, he's "seen about everything there is to see." He simply clears the destroyed furniture off to the sides of the room and shampoos the carpet while Stormy cuts Betty's lingerie to ribbons.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Claire calls Stuart out on continuing a fishing trip after discovering a dead body in the river.
  • Would Hit a Girl:
    • Implied with Bill; although he never raises a hand against Honey, he does violently elbow the woman woven into the fabric of their sofa cover at the beginning of the film, and is disturbed by his arousal at the simulation of having beaten and stabbed Honey while using her for make-up practice.
    • Played straight with Jerry, who smashes mountain biker Nancy to death with a rock in the film's climax and is implied to have been the killer of Caroline Avery, the girl whose body Stuart, Gordon, and Vern discovered.
  • Wrong Name Outburst: When Wally drops Betty and Chad off at their house after their weekend away, Chad shouts, "'Bye, Gene!" Betty hastily corrects him to "Wally".
  • Your Cheating Heart:
    • Marian admits to Ralph that she had a drunken liaison with a fellow artist named Mitchell Anderson three years earlier. Ralph has suspected this all along; he does not take the confirmation of his suspicions well and spends their dinner with the Kanes sniping at her for it.
      (after Ralph has won yet another Jeopardy! game)
      Marian: Are you cheating, Ralph?
      Ralph: No Marian, you cheat, remember?
      (later, as Marian passes the role of "Alex Trebek" to Ralph)
      Ralph: Does Alex Trebek cheat?
    • Gene is a serial adulterer, to the point that Sherri no longer cares. Betty Weathers is one of his girlfriends, but when she tells him an obvious lie about going to Lake Tahoe to see her "half-stepsister" Bunny (she is actually going away with Wally, her other boyfriend) and he arrives at her house to find Stormy's car outside and sees Stormy's silhouette through the window as he destroys everything he can get his chainsaw on, Gene throws a rock through the window in a rage and goes back to Sherri (just as she predicted).
    • Howard became estranged from his father Paul when, after the former was rushed to hospital as a child, his mother went to break the news to Paul and found him in bed with her sister Olla. Paul insists that it was a one-off and that Olla claimed that it was a long-term affair to break up their marriage, but Howard clearly doesn't believe him.
    • While Bill and Honey are on a picnic with Jerry, Lois, and their children, Bill takes an interest in two young female mountain bikers who nearly crash into Jerry's van while they are laying out the picnic, and he suggests he and Jerry try to seduce them. Bill seems to be making some progress with one of the girls when the emotionally unstable Jerry suddenly smashes the other girl's head with a rock, killing her.