Dr. T & the Women
Director: Robert Altman. Cast: Richard Gere, Helen Hunt, Laura Dern, Farrah Fawcett, Kate Hudson, Tara Reid, Liv Tyler, Shelley Long, Janine Turner, Lee Grant, Robert Hays, Matt Malloy, Andy Richter. Screenplay: Anne Rapp.

The premise of Dr. T & the Women is probably exactly what Altman's detractors—the people who think he's a flagrant misanthropist, or at least a virulent misogynist—have craved as positive proof of their indictments. Here we have a comedy about the trials and tribulations of a Dallas gynecologist whose life, like Noah's, is a flood—not of water, but of women. Wives, daughters, nieces, sisters-in-law, secretaries, paramours, matrons, cheerleaders: all through the movie, there's a sea of females swirling around Dr. Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere). When a tornado licks his backyard at the movie's end, we are encouraged to view that event as the visual index of his life experience. Mother Nature: just another dizzy dame raising mad, unpredictable hell. Sully laughs at the tornado, the conditioned response of a character and a movie who combine to tell us, "Women—if you can't beat 'em, and who can?, you can always giggle at 'em."

Few directors could get away with this, any of this: a plot that barely exists about a man whose job of looking at the insides of women calms him from the fray of their lunatic exteriors. Some versions of distaff "lunacy" on display for us include a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who can't stay off her cellphone; a moneyed housewife who regresses into mental infancy after stripping and dancing in a public fountain; a lawyer-doctor who prefers to cull her diagnoses from Greek mythology, rather than from fusty, leatherbound precedent; and a young assassination aficionado who leads walking tours to the X-marked spot where JFK's brains met the city asphalt. Which is to say nothing of the multiple women who schedule unnecessary appointments at Dr. T's gynecology clinic for the gratuitous thrill of being looked at by such a sure-handed, sweet-talking cutie-pie. (Travis notices the new hairstyle of one of these women, and when he communicates the compliment to her husband—one of the doctor's own hunting buddies—the confused sop barks out, "Oh, you mean the hair on her head!") The only women around who seem to have independent mental faculties, including a relative immunity to Dr. T's silver-haired charms, are a local golfing coach and the nursing staff at the doctor's office. But then it turns out that, no, they pretty much want to bang him, too.

So I was saying that very few directors could get away this? But there you have it: Altman does, or at least comes close enough. He has such an inimitable hand with his bubbling casts, loose narratives, and community peccadilloes that even a slightish work like Dr. T & the Women feels remarkably assured for a minor comedy, and disarmingly sweet in handling an inescapably sexist scenario. Altman's working here with Anne Rapp, the same screenwriter who penned Cookie's Fortune, his previous Dixieland meringue—and no, the fact that Rapp is a woman does not mean this film's gender politics are immediately off the hook. But, in an age where nine of ten comedies are hysterical in tone and boilerplate-simple in their conception ("opposites attract in this zany tale of..."), Altman and Rapp have found a niche genre that no one else would think to fill: the jokeless ensemble comedy where nothing happens. It feels like a million years since anyone made movies where we were invited simply to spend time with the characters: not to love them, judge them, learn from them, spy on them, scream at them. In Altman's recent movies, we just happen to be around while folks do the odd things they'd do anyway.

In this environment, where big acting would be an unforgivable vanity, actors who typically come off as overconfident (Gere), overchallenged (Kate Hudson), or half-baked in every sense (Tara Reid) seem winning, unhurried. Helen Hunt is too congenitally tense an actress to let go entirely, so she finds a nice role where she gets to do what most of her characters wish they were doing—telling everyone what to do, and having them all mistake that quality for attractive, compassionate interest. The best performance in the movie is by Laura Dern's, who finds exactly the right register of hilarious, dangerless eccentricity for her part as a tipsy aunt who flits about in the background of the family making instantly disposable small talk. "You look so good in hats!" and "That sounds very strange" become one-liners in Dern's mouth, precisely because the movie never needs or expects them to be punchlines.

It's this pervasive spirit of relaxation—aided so beautifully by regular editor Geraldine Peroni and the leisurely zooms and pans of his rotating cinematographers (in this case, Jan Kiesser)—that makes even Altman's lesser films such piquant little pleasures. Of course the film is more motivated than it looks; Gere's character does not survive the movie with his chivalric pretensions and sentimental blindness intact, though nor is he punished for them. Even the character who "betrays" him manages to do so with what counts in an Altman film as remarkably little comeuppance. And though almost every single story resolution feels pat and abbreviated—all of them displaced by a strange little Gere-centric coda that traffics queasily in racial exoticism—the logic of the editing and the modest symmetries in the plot and dialogue are fun to suss out. The film is like a familiar puzzle, laid out by gamesmen who have no investment in outsmarting us, who even take it as a form of politness that their riddles and designs should be briskly guessable.

I'm still in the camp who find Altman totally unhateful toward his characters. Even when he does accommodate outright caricature (as in a turning-point scene with Shelley Long's character and a needless subplot with Janine Turner's), the feeling I get is how delighted, even grateful Altman is that human beings do such weird things every minute that life is never boring. Even characters who are intently self-conscious are invariably, subliminally weird in other ways. And if Dr. T & the Women isn't one of the pictures where the tensions between intent and effect, or self-presentation and self-exposure, generate impressive moral and even political insights (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Player, the incomparable Nashville), it still feels like an intermediary work by an auteur who could, at any minute, knock our socks off again. Watching Dr. T & the Women a second time doesn't help the movie; it might even make one impatient for those superior films we know Altman could be making. But he remains one of the few American filmmakers who knows what to do with more than three people in a scene. Even bona fide social historians must surely prefer, on occasion, the more miniature pastime of people-watching. Grade: B

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