After several years of making less-successful motion pictures (1999's
"Cookie's Fortune," 1996's "Kansas City") that lacked the memorable nature of
his earlier work, it was with a slight sense of pause that made me question
if director Robert Altman was possibly losing his surefire touch. Although
never losing his loose stylishness and quirkily realistic characters,
Altman's last great film was 1993's "Short Cuts," which, in fact, beared a
close resemblance to his most masterful achievement, 1975's "Nashville," a
multi-layered expose of a week in the lives of twenty-four characters in the
title city of country music.
With the aid of Anne Rapp's precise, accurately drawn screenplay, Altman's
latest film, "Dr. T and the Women," is not only a thoroughly enjoyable and
satisfying piece of work, but one of the better, more thought-provoking
movies he has made. Richard Gere exquisitely stars as princely Dallas
gynecologist Sullivan Travis ("Dr. T"), who, for as long as he can remember,
has dedicated himself to the many, many females in his life. Women to him,
you see, are all alluring and unique in their own special ways, and feels as
if they should be treated like such. Because of his studly looks, intermixed
with his kind, purely professional demeanor, Dr. T's office is constantly
swarming each day with patients, primarily wealthy debutantes from Dallas'
upper crust of society.
Tragedy hits close to home when his beloved wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett),
somehow snaps and acquires a rare mental disorder known as the Hestia
Complex, in which the sufferer resorts to a virginal, child-like state. Also
on his already full plate is the upcoming wedding of his cheerleader daughter
Dee Dee (Kate Hudson), who may or may not be hiding her true feelings for old
college friend and maid-of-honor Marilyn (Liv Tyler), much to the concern of
Dee Dee's conspiracy buff sister Connie (Tara Reid). Also in Dr. T's life is
daffy sister-in-law Peggy (Laura Dern), who can't go much longer than a
minute without a swig of booze, and who has just moved back into his mansion
with her three little daughters; sprightly office assistant Carolyn (Shelley
Long), who secretly pines for Dr. T from afar; and Bree (Helen Hunt), the new
golf pro in town who proves to not only be sexually-charged, but also a good
listener, and whose very independence deeply attracts Dr. T to her.
"Dr. T and the Women" is an extraordinarily assured comedy-drama about a man
whose very love for women has made him want to spend his entire life
satisfying and making them happy. While many of his patients are overly
materialistic, Dr. T's very nature is to be non-critical of each and every
one of them, and to really listen to what they have to say. Additionally, his
extended family, composed solely of the opposite sex, all love, trust, and
rely on him, and this very fact makes him utterly satisfied. One of the best
things about the writing, by Anne Rapp, is not only the way she truthfully
portrays the female characters, but, like Dr. T, holds no preconceived
judgments of the people that comprise the title character's entire being.
In what has become a token trademark of his, Altman paints his story and
characters with enough shading and layers that something is almost always
going on in the background, as well as the foreground, whether it be a subtle
character idiosyncrasy, or an uneventful, superfluous string of dialogue that
permeates through everyday interactions. Whatever it may be, this distinct
filmmaking choice helps to develop and get the viewer to somehow come to know
the characters better, even when they aren't given too much to work with on
the scripted page.
The cast in "Dr. T and the Women" couldn't possibly get any better. Aside
from veteran Richard Gere's star-making (yes, you heard that right)
performance that makes you feel as if you are glimpsing him as an actor for
the first time, the rest of the actors are no less impressive. In standout
turns, Laura Dern (1996's "Citizen Ruth") is exceptionally funny and
entertaining as joyful alcoholic Peggy; Helen Hunt (1997's "As Good As It
Gets) thoughtfully underplays her complicated role as the idealistic woman
Dr. T falls for; and Tara Reid (1999's "American Pie") is extremely likable
and brightly cast as Dr. T's faithful daughter Connie. It should be quickly
added that singling out the best performances in the picture is almost a
pointless task, since everyone fits right into the proceedings, including
Kate Hudson (2000's "Almost Famous"), touching as confused bride-to-be Dee
Dee, Shelley Long (1995's The Brady Bunch Movie"), and Liv Tyler (1999's
"Plunkett and McLeane").
Nearly flawless until its final minutes, in which Altman weaves a highly
ambiguous surprise conclusion that could be interpreted any number of ways,
but feels mildly disappointing in relation to everything that has come
before, "Dr. T and the Women" is the best type of comedy--one that not only
makes you laugh, but that makes you deeply care, too. Above everything else,
this is a one-of-a-kind motion picture that treats all of its characters with
respect and dignity, whether they fully deserve it or not, and never once
attempts to pick sides. Too often, female roles in Hollywood are underwritten
or unfairly looked over, but director Altman has always fondly treated them
as intelligent individuals with thoughts, ideas, and a whole lot of heart.
With "Dr. T and the Women," he has adoringly created a love letter especially
for them, and in the process, made one of the very best films of the year.
Way to go, Bob. Way to go.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman