Dr. T and the Women (2000) *** 1/2
Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Anne Rapp. Photography, Jan Kiesser. Editing, Geraldine Peroni. Production design, Stephen Altman. Costume design, Dona Granata. Music, Lyle Lovet. Produced by Robert Altman and James McLindon. Cast: Richard Gere (Dr. T), Helen Hunt (Bree), Farrah Fawcett (Kate), Laura Dern (Peggy), Shelley Long (Carolyn), Tara Reid (Connie), Kate Hudson (Dee Dee), Liv Tyler (Marilyn), Robert Hays (Harlan), Matt Malloy (Bill), Andy Richter (Eli), Lee Grant (Dr. Harper), Janine Turner (Dorothy). An Artisan Entertainment release. 122 minutes. R (sex, nudity)
In the last year or two, I can't remember a top director's new film creating as much controversy as "Dr. T" did. Its reception ranges from admiration to vilification. A single viewing of many a picture can be unfair --either way-- to major film-makers. My own single viewing put me squarely in Robert Altman's camp.
The title's doctor is a Dallas gynecologist whose clientele are chic, wealthy, idle, upper-class ladies of all ages. They all love him, even adore him. So does his rather large staff. His popularity is immense for obvious reasons.
He is clearly a first-rate OB-GYN. His interest in his patients is extraordinary, personal, sincere, intelligent. Though overworked he is also patient with the patients. All of them love him, and he loves them back. And he looks like Richard Gere.
Dr. T's anteroom is like a women's club. The ladies mostly know one another or are friends. They practice air kissing on occasion, fill his waiting room to capacity, chat and gossip among themselves, request Dr. T with persistence, keep him non-stop busy. They are mostly nice looking (even beautiful, e.g. the spectacular Janine Turner) but in one of the film's several subtleties (sic) none of those ladies is shown as a vamp.
In this bedlam, T and his wonderfully good staff manage to keep their heads above water, their cool, their genuine smiles, and their humanity.
The whole scene is as Altmanesque as can be. The director juggles characters, dialogue (overlapping, synchronized, credible), images and action with his usual, impressive skill. The viewer may be kept busy following things and people, but there's clarity and method in this madness.
One might normally suspect that within this framework are affairs between T and "his" women. But the catch is that Dr. T worships and deifies women, calls them saints, finds that each one is unique. He respects them even at their nuttiest. And he's crazy about his own wife Kate (Farrah Fawcett) whom he has always pampered.
In such films the overall atmosphere and numerous characters can be more important and interesting than the main story line. Here the start has a magnificently roving camera which follows the ladies through an upscale mall -- ironically but gently, critically but not superciliously. It's an A-plus sequence within which a Tiffany's, other elegant boutiques, and customers are "composed" like a careful orchestral score.
At the mall Kate, behaves oddly, takes off her clothes and dances in a pool. Back in the Travis home, she refuses her husband's amorous advances. "We can't do this any more. It's not nice." She is diagnosed as suffering from a Hestia Complex. In ancient Greece, Hestia, goddess of the hearth, pursued by Apollo and Poseidon decided to be a virgin forever. The complex--assuming it exists -- is caused by too much male love and attention. It results in a retreat to a child-like state. The subject despises, then rejects love.
That's the kernel of the plot. With Kate apparently not quickly curable, Dr. T finds minor solace by continuing to get together with his buddies for golf and hunting. He meets the new assistant golf coach Bree (Helen Hunt). Writ as large as a sky-writing plane's, the message announces an affair. But this predictabiliy comes with originality in the details.
Choreographed as well as orchestrated, the developments thicken with characters, themes and plot-threads that are beautifully juggled. Among them, T's grown-up daughters, one a guide for the JFK Conspiracy Museum, the other a pretty-by-the-numbers cheerleader who is about to be married.
More ingredients are gradually thrown into the sauce. Kate at the clinic; wedding preparations; T's head-nurse (Shelly Long) who is in love with him; weird patients; lesbianism; an outdoor wedding ceremony attended by a 20 to 1 ratio of women to men--in stormy weather, no less; much else. I will not disclose the film's progress, surprises, its peculiar last parts (in development and in cinematography) or the shocking (to some) ending which is upbeat and a kind of epiphany for Dr. T. I can't say more.
All this has fine, precise acting by all but no feeling of drilled puppets. Gere who bears the main load, plays quietly and discreetly. I repeat. Where we expected a Don Juan, or at least a male who might yield to female pulchritude and opportunities, the man is a sort of innocent man, a sort of appealing, natural-born father-figure to women, even a distant relation to Candide. In a sense, too,
The movie also has originality, imagination, creativity and a host of clever bits. To mention one at random, there's a chain-smoking patient whom T allows exceptionally to smoke during her examination. When he's had enough of that he hands the ashtray to a nurse... who disposes of it but not before taking one puff behind T's back. More than a joke, it is a tiny, funny, human touch.
There is also a plethora of filmic and non-filmic in-jokes and references, often elusive, always amusing, some seemingly gratuitous. Among them: Dr. T's name is Sullivan Travis, which recalls the great 1941 comedy by Preston Sturges, "Sullivan's Travels." Behind the pool where Kate dances nude is a Godiva store. The storm in the last part of the film seems to wink at the Helen Hunt-starring "Twister" (1996). Hunt's name Bree is like Jane Fonda's in "Klute" (1971). Jokes are made about Brie the cheese, though this movie is not cheesy.
The main objection of many naysayers is to Robert Altman's alleged misogyny. It is true that hardly any female customers look really intelligent here (or the few men, for that matter) but that's par for the course in today's cinema. But if you look closely --since many roles are so brief-- they do have a kind of uniqueness -- a justification of T's credo.
Whether on purpose or by accident, the charmers among them are found among the very small roles of T's assistants and especially in the key part of Shelley Long. Hunt has charms for Gere -- but there's a twist. A number of viewers are specifically incensed by Altman's "insulting" Dallas ladies (few of them sound like Texans, by the way) or the girls (those in the discreetly ludicrous cheerleading class) but they could have been in many other wealthy cities. What really matters however is that not only Altman or his part-time alter ego Dr. T do not badmouth women but that the movie could have had the same title as Truffaut's delicious "The Man Who Loved Women." (Forget about its American remake)
The hullabaloo brings to mind an interview with Clint Eastwood who said that he did not expect his "Unforgiven" to be a hit. "It's too intelligent."