A Diorama Of Dysfunction

IT MAY HAVE 22 MAJOR CHARACTERS, and run three hours and nine minutes, but Robert Altman's stunning Short Cuts is remarkably nimble and light on its feet. It shoots along, like a stone skipping on water, darting in and out of the disheveled middle- and working-class lives of its deracinated Los Angeles characters. it's an epic, but not the kind we're used to: no sweeping vistas, swelling music, larger-than-life emotions. Altman, at his best, has always been a lower-case director, more interested in spontaneity than spectacle, preferring flux to finality. The ease with which he weaves his nine sets of characters in and out of the narrative is testimony to his formal control, yet the style stays loose and off the cuff, as if he were merely eavesdropping on reality. His Look Ma, no hands! manner is his most artful deception: every square foot of this sprawling fresco is stamped with his jauntily bleak sensibility, his insatiable curiosity about the messiness of human relations.

The scope and structure recall "Nashville," but the milieu is closer to the underrated "California Split." Transplanting nine Raymond Carver short stories from the Northwest to southern California, Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt aren't interested in conjuring up familiar media images of L.A. Except for the ominous squadron of medfly-spraying helicopters that opens the film, and the earthquake that closes it, "Short Cuts" could be set in any part of dysfunctional suburban America, wherever families are coming apart, wherever a shared sense of community has given way to randomness, drift and too much drink. The center isn't holding anymore -indeed, there's no center in sight.

It's not a pretty picture. The most "successful" couple in the story-a TV broadcaster (Bruce Davison) and his wife (Andie MacDowell)-have the worst luck: their son (Zane Cassidy) is hit by a car, and his life hangs in the balance through most of the film. This skein, based on "A Small, Good Thing," is the most faithful to its source: elsewhere, Altman riffs freely on Carver motifs. A swimming-pool cleaner (Chris Penn) swallows his rage as he listens to his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) have phone sex for money while she changes their baby's diaper. An unemployed husband (Fred Ward) goes on a fishing trip with his pals, where they discover a girl's naked corpse and do nothing. When he tells his wife, a birthday clown (Anne Archer), it drives a wedge through their marriage. A jealous doctor (Matthew Modine) taunts his artist wife (Julianne Moore) about a past infidelity. Her long-suffering sister (Madeleine Stowe) is trapped in a cacophonous marriage to a philandering cop (Tim Robbins), who's having an affair with Frances McDormand; her estranged husband (Peter Gallagher) is bent on revenge. Another couple (Robert Downey Jr. and Lili Taylor) housesit for a friend and play out their sex fantasies in the neighbor's bed. Taylor's mother is waitress Lily Tomlin, who inadvertently runs down the little boy. She's married to an alcoholic chauffeur (Tom Waits) full of boozy plans to escape their trailer home in Downey.

Disconnection is the theme, and the estrangement of men and women, who rarely move on the same wavelength. The men strike out, defensive, emotionally violent. Most of the women are more supple survivors, their vulnerability signified by physical nakedness. All around them children swarm, uncomprehending of the folly they'll no doubt inherit. Altman gets some amazing performances: Leigh's chilling sexual bluntness; Stowe's sardonic resignation in the face of the comically monstrous Robbins's macho posturing. Tomlin and Waits work up a wonderful tough-tender chemistry. MacDowell movingly conveys a woman thick with grief In the hospital, Jack Lemmon delivers a riveting confession of his long-ago marital betrayal as his son Davison squirms in discomfort.

A few of the threads are ragged: the Altman-invented story of a drunken jazz singer (Annie Ross) who can't communicate with her suicidal cellist daughter (Lori Singer) sticks out-the girl is unreal, a literary conceit. Ward and Archer's marriage isn't set up convincingly, so nothing's at stake when it cracks. Modine is too callow even for his callow character, and the amateur Lyle Lovett, as a baker who harasses MacDowell for forgetting to pick up her son's birthday cake, is in over his head. But even when "Short Cuts" misfires, it rarely fails to transfix. Few filmmakers have captured so acutely the provisional, we're-making-this-up-as-we-go-along texture of middle-class American life. It's a funny/scary vision, with a manic edge-which is why, when you come down from the high of the filmmaking, you may be left with the taste of ashes in your mouth. Altman's artistry can make you happy even when his art offers cold comfort.