Director Robert Altman has brilliantly adapted Raymond Carver's short stories for the screen in Short Cuts. From the opening scene where helicopters are spraying insecticide over Los Angeles to kill medflies until the film's closing moments when the city is rocked by an earthquake, the 22 characters in this riveting drama are kept off balance, unsettled, and jangled. Nature has gone awry and so have their lives. Stuck in dead-end jobs and unfulfilling relationships, most of these individuals behave badly.

The characters in Short Cuts come from the middle and working class. As their stories crisscross, one thing becomes obvious: they all share a common frustration--they don't even get the little that they want.

Tim Robbins is a self-centered motorcycle cop whose long suffering wife, Madeleine Stowe, can't tolerate his philandering ways. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a wife and mother who alienates her husband, Chris Penn, by running a telephone sex service out of their home. Matthew Modine, a doctor who seems to have it all, can't rest until he compels his wife, Julianne Moore, to confess that she betrayed him a year earlier with a one-night stand.

When tragedy or disappointment comes, these hard-pressed individuals can only express themselves with extreme gestures. While Bruce Davison, a TV editorial writer, and his wife, Andie MacDowell, watch their young son slip into a coma after being hit by a car, Lyle Lovett as a baker harasses them with nasty phone calls when they don't pick up the cake they ordered for the boy's birthday. Anne Archer is a sensitive wife who punishes her husband, Fred Ward, after hearing that he and two of his friends did nothing about the nude corpse of a woman they discovered in a stream during a fishing trip.

Albert Schweitzer warned us years ago about a malady he called "sleeping sickness of the soul." He connected it with a loss of seriousness and concluded that "you should realize that your soul suffers if you live superficially."

The characters in Short Cuts have reached that point in their lives when they don't care about what happens to others. That is a sure sign of soul sickness. Many of them are so fed up with their crummy lives that nothing makes any difference anymore.

If you're looking for a movie that will take you for a stroll on the sunny side of the street, Short Cuts is not for you. If you're on the lookout for a movie that captures and conveys the contemporary malaise of soul sickness, this one does it better and more convincingly than anything we've seen in years.