Dr. T and the Women (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Few will deny that Robert Altman is among the greatest working American directors. His best films - M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, and Short Cuts - occupy unassailable perches of artistic and creative achievement. With a filmmaker of Altman's talent, we have come to anticipate something amazing every time out - which, as most people would acknowledge, is an unreasonable expectation. Even masters like Hitchcock, Kurosawa, and Bergman had their failures. In recent years, Altman has been in a minor slump. His latest batch of movies, which have included Kansas City, The Gingerbread Man, and Cookie's Fortune, have represented minor entries on his resume. Now, with Dr. T and the Women, he has sunk lower. While it's impossible to call anything fashioned by a man of Altman's skill unwatchable, there are times when this pedantic and dull effort comes close.

It's tempting to say that the problems start with Richard Gere, and, given the vicious diatribe directed against the actor by Autumn In New York's screenwriter, Allison Burnett, that's not an unreasonable hypothesis. But, while Gere's acting talent does nothing to enhance the film, the flaws run much deeper than those that can be laid at his feet. Besides, it's difficult to believe that a director of Altman's clout would allow a film to be ruined by the ego of his lead performer. Joan Chen (who helmed Autumn in New York) is new enough to the business that one could see this happening; Altman, on the other hand, is as grizzled as veterans come.

Dr. T and the Women was written by Anne Rapp, who is collaborating with Altman for the second time. Like Cookie's Fortune, their previous endeavor, Dr. T and the Women is set in the South (Dallas) and incorporates a great deal of local flavor and color into the storyline. Unlike Cookie's Fortune, however, this movie suffers from a poor flow, sketchily developed (or undeveloped) characters, and a lack of humor. Cookie's Fortune was occasionally uproarious, but the best Dr. T can manage is the occasional odd chuckle. In fact, the most amusing moments are directly attributable to Altman's visual flair, such as when a naked woman frolics in a fountain outside of a Godiva Chocolates store.

The lead character is a gynecologist by the name of Sullivan "Sully" Travis (Gere), or Dr. T as his patients call him. By all accounts, he's one of the busiest men in Dallas, and, as one might expect from someone who's a "lucky kind" of doctor, he is surrounded by women, and not just at work, but at home as well. He has a wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett) and two grown daughters, Dee Dee (Kate Hudson) and Connie (Tara Reid), plus his sister-in-law, Peggy (Laura Dern), and her three young girls are living in his house. And the new golf pro at his golf club is also a woman - a former LPGA Top 25 money winner named Bree (Helen Hunt) who is about the only female in his life who doesn't put on airs.

Dr. T's life starts to crumble when Kate, afflicted with a rare psychological disorder called the Hestia Complex, must be committed to a mental hospital. She has regressed into a childlike state in which she believes Sully is her brother. With Kate no longer in the picture, he finds himself falling for Bree, who is all too willing to respond to his overtures. Meanwhile, Dee Dee is planning her wedding, even though she appears more attracted to Marilyn (Liv Tyler), the maid of honor, than to her intended bridegroom. Connie is jealous of the attention her sister is getting. Peggy is downing champagne like water. Sully's nurse, Caroline (Shelly Long), is coming on to him. And his patients are fighting in the waiting room. All in a day's work for Dr. T.

Dr. T and the Women contains some typical Altman trademarks - quirky characters; long, unbroken camera shots; intersecting storylines; and numerous loose ends. However, it has all the grace of a dead pigeon plummeting from the sky. The lack of focus isn't the biggest problem; instead, it's the inability to become involved in the story on any level. The characters are boring and things move at a glacial pace. Dr. T and the Women picks up considerably during its final half-hour, and the climax, which bears a resemblance to that of Magnolia, leads to a moment of brilliant irony. (It's interesting to note the incestuous relationship between Altman and Magnolia director Paul Thomas Anderson, who has acknowledged Nashville and Short Cuts as inspirations.) However, it's necessary to navigate through 90 minutes of becalmed waters to get there.

This is not a triumph of acting. Richard Gere has done worse work, but his stiff portrayal of Dr. T won't draw viewers into the film. Half the women - Farrah Fawcett, Kate Hudson, Liv Tyler - consistently look bewildered (although, at least in Fawcett's case, this can be attributed to her character; the others lack a similar excuse). Laura Dern makes a competent drunk, which is to say that she does a good job essaying an excruciatingly annoying individual. The only breath of fresh air is Helen Hunt, whose unforced performance contrasts sharply with Gere's flat approach.

Altman will undoubtedly recover from Dr. T and the Women; he's too accomplished a filmmaker not to. In its own way, it's more of an interesting failure than a complete disaster. The movie contains some things to appreciate, not the least of which is the way Altman constructs each scene. But an audience has a right to expect a lot more from a motion picture than a study in technique, and Dr. T and the Women doesn't deliver. Better instead to visit the video store and rent something from Altman's previous body of work.

Dr. T and the Women (United States, 2000)

Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Richard Gere, Andy Richter, Matt Malloy, Robert Hays, Liv Tyler, Kate Hudson, Tara Reid, Shelley Long, Laura Dern, Farrah Fawcett, Helen Hunt, Janine Turner
Screenplay: Anne Rapp
Cinematography: Jan Kiesser
Music: Lyle Lovett
U.S. Distributor: Artisan Entertainment
Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2000-10-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1