I have to admit, I find Altman a bit overrated (mind you, I still think he is often good and sometimes great). But "Short Cuts" is worthy of all its praise (may be the source material has something to do with it; it's an adaptation of Raymond Carver's novel). The film is a series of stories that all interrelate, even if tangentially. I am a sucker for large ensemble casts with individual narratives tied together thematically (Magnolia, Crash); and Altman's ethos as an actor's director allows him to get an all-star ensemble cast (I believe Julianne Moore is in every ensemble film from the past 15 years).
Like most of Carver's work (and Altman's) most of the characters are simple folk facing common problems, be it cheating husbands, rocky marriages, or trouble with children. Although few of the characters face true redemption, none of the characters are treated with an air of condescension or caricature. Few characters are likable; there always seems to be a disconnect between the characters within the film and that translates into our relationship with them. The film is set in Los Angeles, a broader metaphor for the isolation among the masses and the attempt to find dignity in a world beyond control. The film ends with an earthquake, like Magnolia's frog shower, that punctuates these themes: the earth shaking realization of one's own emotional limitations. The film is not nihilistic or trite, but understanding of the hardships that many experience, even if they are self-inflicted.
Smart film, a must see. Altman's best.