ACTORS LOVE HIM, which is why Robert Altman has made 30-plus movies in over 40 years as a director. True, three decades have passed since M*A*S*H, and seven years since his last decent flick, Short Cuts, but laziness, sloppiness, and sheer mediocrity between such career high points haven't kept the performers away. Here, he's divided his traditionally big, sprawling cast into two camps: stars and oddities. In the former, Richard Gere is Travis the Texas gynecologist; Helen Hunt is Bree the golf pro at his club; Kate Hudson of Almost Famous is his about-to-be-wed daughter. In the latter, Farrah Fawcett is his dingbat wife; Shelly Long is his dutiful office manager; Robert Hays of Airplane is one of his hunting buddies.
Up close and personal: Hunt and Gere.
DR. T & THE WOMEN
directed by Robert Altman with Richard Gere, Helen Hunt, Kate Hudson, Laura Dern, and Farrah Fawcett opens October 13 at Metro, Meridian, and others
Dr. T leads a charmed, prosperous life, which Altman and his screenwriter Anne Rapp are determined to send into chaos. The breakdown of a social order is, after all, a familiar Altman theme. The view from behind Dr. T's speculum reveals patients who cling to him, who fill his waiting room like hysterical quarrelsome hens, who demand he deliver all their babies. And there's no relief at home: His wife flips out; his alcoholic sister-in-law (Laura Dern) has taken up residence like a squatter; and his younger daughter spouts JFK assassination theories.
The good doctor finds respite from these pestering women in an affair with calm, collected Bree, who dresses like a man, golfs like a man, and can presumably be relied upon to behave as rationally as a man— at least in Dr. T's flawed diagnosis. "I have never seen a woman like you," he marvels, and Gere's scenes with Hunt suggest a sweetly tentative midlife romantic comedy that could've stood nicely on its own.
Unfortunately, Altman has other ideas and wastes far too much time on fringe characters and subplots that—as opposed to the big-canvas approach of Nashville or M*A*S*H—never coalesce into anything meaningful. With so much plot, so much color, plus an imminent wedding, you might think that he was going for farce. But give Altman credit for not taking the obvious direction—even if it would've resulted in a better, more focused movie.
Not as bad as Ready to Wear, Dr. T has fun with Dallas fashions and manners; as with any Altman movie, the actors provide many enjoyable flourishes. (Long's Texas intonation of "in-surance" and the appearance of former Conan O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter help allay the boredom.) And it's almost a shock to find Gere playing a shy character who's hard up for sex, but his is just another good performance wasted for the cause. Job-like yet laughing, Travis can't contain or comprehend the feminine life force, which finally, literally spins Dr. T out of control.