As unpredictable as ever, Robert Altman delivers a gently provocative character study and social portrait in “Dr. T & the Women.” Taking their own sweet time to paint an exceptionally detailed and often quite funny picture of the most rarified strata of Dallas society, only to detonate some unexpected land mines later on, Altman and his congenially matched screenwriter Anne Rapp wrap some stinging psychological and emotional observations in a beguiling package topped by Richard Gere’s most accessible and sympathetic performance in memory. Like all of the director’s films, this one won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Artisan should be able to ride the attractive cast names and some presumed fine reviews to better-than-average Altman B.O. Pic had its world premiere Sept. 1 at the Venice Film Festival.
Title, cast and the marketing campaign almost seem designed to convey the mistaken impression that the story concerns a handsome high society gynecologist who is frantically juggling any number of women in his personal and professional lives. Superficially, this is true, except for the all-important fact that Gere’s Dr. Sullivan Travis is, despite his unlimited supply of temptations, a proudly faithful husband who regards women as “saints” who “should be treated as such.” The high regard in which Dr. T holds women reminds of nothing so much as devotion that many of Francois Truffaut’s male characters professed for the women in their lives, even if there was usually an erotic charge underlying their admiration.
Bouyant opening credits sequence cuts between an elderly matron in stirrups hilariously attempting to conduct polite conversation with the doctor during a checkup and the gathering swarm of ladies in the good doctor’s waiting room, a veritable salon of gossip, anxiety and frustration presided over with exasperated expertise by Carolyn (Shelley Long). Orchestrated with dazzlng finesse, scene deftly establishes the doc’s eminence and overbooked daily calendar, as well as the excessively pampered nature of the women in his world.
Latter trait extends to Dr. T’s immediate family, who include his athletic, well-preserved wife Kate (Farrah Fawcett), college-age daughters Connie (Tara Reid) and Dee Dee (Kate Hudson) and sister-in-law Peggy (Laura Dern), who is divorcing her husband and has just moved into the Travis mansion with her three toddler daughters. All blondes of various degrees of authenticity, the women are first glimpsed in an upscale mall in preparation for Dee Dee’s upcoming wedding, but the outing ends ominously when Kate drifts off in a daze, slowly strips and is finally taken into custody after prancing buck naked in a public fountain.
Although Kate is committed to a psychiatric hospital with a mystery ailment that makes her reject her husband’s love, everyone carries on almost unaffectedly with their lives: boozy Peggy all but takes over the house with her spoiled brood, Dee Dee is preoccupied with her wedding and cheerleading practice, and semi-rebel Connie is really into her job as a Dealey Plaza tour guide for the Conspiracy Museum, dedicated to anti-Warren Report versions of history.
As for Dr. T, he slides into a comfortable friendship with new country club golf pro Bree (Helen Hunt), who slowly but surely nudges things along until the doc, feeling all but abandoned by his wife, succumbs to the lure of a no-strings affair in a beautifully nuanced, mostly silent dinner sequence backed by two on-the-money Lyle Lovett tunes.
Although marked by a continually enjoyable accretion of detail and vital work by the thesps, storytelling admittedly leans to the slight and leisurely through the first hour or so, until a prolonged sequence devoted to Dr. T’s day from hell. As the number of women in his waiting room steadily grows, the doctor is semi-farcically confronted with a number of shocks relating to his private life that have the cumulative effect of making him want to take things with the happily matter-of-fact Bree much more seriously. With little warning, life seems to have closed in on the doc’s ordered existence and long-standing assumptions, but the one out he sees may not be what it appears.
The superficial jolts of the plot, however startling they may be for Dr. T, are hardly seismic by contempo dramatic standards. Much more sobering are the underlying, unstressed implications of the film’s oppositions. Virtually all the women in the picture have been “taken care of” to the point where they don’t have to think about anything but their wardrobe, beauty treatments and social schedules; their personalities and speech mannerisms are virtually identical, and never do they speak about anything outside the small spheres of their personal lives. It’s no surprise, then, that Dr. T responds to the self-possessed Bree because she’s “different,” but her very independence raises problems of its own that are the opposite of those posed by the childlike Kate but result in the same consequences for Dr. T.
The widescreen visual canvas here may not be as rich and lush as in some of Altman’s earlier films, but the director’s precise perceptions remain alert, prankish and impudent. Shot in the fall and punctuated by incidental twilight golf games and absurdist hunting scenes, pic has a distinctly autumnal feel dressed up by a pronounced water motif that climactically morphs into a life-altering storm. The little visual joke of making all the women blond suddenly pays off midway through when the jet-black-haired Marilyn (Liv Tyler), Dee Dee’s maid of honor, arrives in their midst to stir things up. As has often been the case with Altman, a certain derisiveness toward some characters occasionally slips in, but prevailing tone is one of sweetness and sympathy, especially for its central figure, and one can’t help but conclude, on the basis of this and last year’s “Cookie’s Fortune,” that scenarist Rapp represents one of the most felicitous collaborators the director has found in years.
Conversely, working with Altman has had a particularly transforming effect on Gere. Playing a middle-aged fellow about whom one woman remarks, “The man knows how to handle a speculum,” Gere glides agreeably through the first, less demanding stretch but impressively rises to the occasion of the greater demands of the second half. Gone is the cocky, preening arrogance of his most off-putting performances, and newly evident are a tender vulnerability and concern for others. In a role that in the old days might have been ideally played by Cary Grant or William Holden, Gere breaks through with what may or may not be his best performance, but is certainly his most likable.
Hunt effectively underplays a woman who knows herself better than anyone else in the picture. Fawcett and Dern portray daftness in their own distinct ways, Hudson is pert as the airhead daughter poised to emerge from her bubble, Reid lends a nice edge as the other daughter who’s become a professional doubter, and the long-unseen Long handles all but a rather demeaning come-on scene with aplomb. The huge number of femme bit players is memorable in and of itself.
Upper-crust Dallas is superbly evoked through the uniformly luxurious but impersonal domestic, professional and country club settings and the near-risible extent to which the women doll themselves up to venture into the world.