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Alexandra DuPont's look at Altman's DR T AND THE WOMEN

Hey folks, Harry here... Father Geek and many of the AICN folks had a choice between seeing DR T AND THE WOMEN... and GIRL ON THE BRIDGE... they were smart... they chose GIRL ON THE BRIDGE... so should you... to prove it, here's our lady of the boring theater... who craves a better film than this.... Alexandra... take it away....




Fellow geeks and geekettes: Have you ever walked out of a movie and realized you'll soon forget you even saw it? You know the experience I'm talking about -- wherein a movie's script, performances, cinematography and other potentially memorable elements are so, well, so UNCOMPELLING that they're shaken from your hippocampus like Etch-A-Sketch dust before they even had a chance to register?

One of those movies, for me anyway, is "Ghostbusters II." At least, I think it is: Isn't that the one with the goo? And a painting or something? And the big walking.... Huh. Was Sigourney Weaver even IN that one?

At any rate, I'm writing as fast as I can, because I'm afraid I'm having another "Ghostbusters II" experience, this time with "maverick" director Robert Altman's latest, "Dr. T and the Women" -- a Richard-Gere-as-high-society-gynecologist comedy.

Let's all stop for a moment and contemplate that.

A Richard-Gere-as-high-society-gynecologist comedy.

Shall we pause for a hearty laugh? Finished? Let's move on.



A well-aged Richard Gere plays high-society gynecologist Dr. T (and why did I keep expecting to see Hans Conreid in this part? "5,000 Fingers," indeed). In the opening credits, Dr. T's busily plunging a speculum into a rich old biddy as she jabbers away at him about nothing -- which, come to think of it, sums up the general vibe of the movie rather nicely.

Anyway, the good Doctor is simply SURROUNDED by rich jabbering Texan ladies in baroque high-society skirts and hats -- patients, daughters, wives of friends, you name it. Thanks to Altman's trademark overlapping-dialogue gimmick (it IS kind of a gimmick by now, isn't it?), these harpies blend together to form a wailing, overly coifed chorus of Sirens, luring the audience to its doom.

Dr. T's daughter (Kate Hudson, looking much older than she did in "Almost Famous" and doing another piece of solid, self-absorbed work) is getting married -- but there are complications in the form of a bridesmaid (Liv Tyler). Meanwhile, Dr. T's wife (a stunt-cast Farrah Fawcett) is behaving erratically, stripping off her clothes at the mall and dancing in fountains and generally behaving like she's 7 years old -- and yes, the real-life parallels to be drawn from her performance are obvious and sort of mean.

There are plenty of other subplots -- an affair with a golfer (Helen Hunt), intrigue with a nosy nurse (Shelley Long, playing the Shelley Duvall role), a daughter (Tara Reid) who works at a JFK conspiracy museum, domestic chaos with a drunken sister (Laura Dern), lots of really bad weather.... I could go on and on.



I know all of the above sounds alluring in that Spanish-soap-opera sort of way, but you've got to believe me when I tell you that, in the case of "Dr. T and the Women," it isn't. Actually, it's sort of noisy and dull. You see, there's this problem of execution.

I should note here that I actually have quite a bit of respect for crusty old Robert Altman: "The Player," "Nashville," "M*A*S*H," "Short Cuts" -- all crackle with energy and are lovely and frequently flawed and just plain DIFFERENT, even when they don't work or don't really add up to much thematically. (Pauline Kael assures me that other of Altman's movies are interesting, too, but I must sheepishly admit I haven't seen them. Flame away, Talk Backers!) Who else takes chances like this Col.-Sanders-looking old codger? God bless and keep you, sir.

But in "Dr. T," the Altman Directorial Method -- which, as I understand it, involves letting actors noisily improvise within a very loose narrative framework -- backfires. Improv is inherently unstable, of course, and Altman's had it blow up in his face throughout his career, so I'm certainly not writing him off as a has-been or anything. But the bottom line is that it's possible to direct with TOO loose a hand when your basic concept is weak. And I'm afraid that's what's happened in the case of "Dr. T."

(I could really back up my whole "basic concept is weak" assertion if I discussed the climax in spoilerific detail, but haven't we had enough spoilers at this week without ruining Altman too? Just trust me: It's silly and out of nowhere and kind of doesn't make any sense. It also casts the entire film as something of a misogynist allegory -- Dr. T's liberation/enlightenment/relief involves a noisy escape from women and his subsequent deliverance of another male -- but maybe that's just me.)

Anyhoo. With the exception of Gere, Hunt, Hudson, and, oh, Fawcett and maybe Tyler, all these talented actors sort of blend together into one improvising, noisy mass -- and this despite Dr. T saying more than once that each woman he meets is unique and special. Plus, that noisy mass exists in the service of a theme that declares women pretty cartoonishly lame as a gender. This is done on purpose -- moments with the noisy harpies are deliberately contrasted with moments of calm, such as Dr. T's scenes with the grounded, self-possessed Hunt character -- but just because something's done on purpose doesn't mean that it works. Altman pits two-dimensional characters (the harpies) against three-dimensional characters (Gere), which means Altman's thematically stacking the deck -- which seems (to me, anyway) artistically unfair. And thanks to the elephant-in-a-bottle narrative compression, even the good actors (excepting Gere) don't get much of a chance to develop any substantial character arc.



(1) Lyle Lovett's soundtrack was overbearing, putting obvious and/or precious neo-country punctuation on every moment. I write this despite the fact that I normally ENJOY Lyle Lovett's music, even though it invariably sounds like it should be playing between news segments on NPR.

(2) Richard Gere? He's pretty damned good, actually. I know people at this site write about how Gere sucks the air out of a room and all that -- I don't entirely disagree -- but his economy in the midst of all Altman's chaos is actually comforting. "Dr. T" features one of his finest, most nuanced performances, and I'm disappointed he had to give it in this movie.

(3) It was deeply distressing to see a nearly unrecognizable Janine Turner, who plays a hypochondriac society wife, looking like her skin's been stretched over her hopelessly tiny skull. I just hope she lost all that weight for the ROLE. Same with Laura Dern, to a far lesser degree.

(4) I could of course be entirely wrong in the above criticisms: The preview audience laughed a few times, particularly in the second half. But I think the ending lost even them.



I presume that many if not most of you read The Onion, the Internet's mightiest satirical publication. In their Sept. 13 edition, one of their lead "news stories" was titled "Every Single Thing Reminds Altman Buff Of Altman Film." Here's the link:


That is all. Now what was I talking about?.... "Ghostbusters II," or something?....

Alexandra DuPont.


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