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The late Robert Altman had a highly personal way of making movies, and his Dr T & the Women (2000) displays all of the grace notes -- and limitations -- of his style. This time Altman focuses on the wealthy dames of Dallas, Texas, a 3-ring circus of pampered, maladjusted females. Altman professed to love women and he certainly provided many actresses with interesting roles, but even as a satire Dr T & the Women doesn't do the female sex any favors. Richard Gere's Dr. T states early on that he believes women to be misunderstood and magical individuals, a sentiment that quickly becomes a curse.
Robert Altman certainly seems to enjoy satirizing the behavior of women. The first reel becomes a stampede of females that mobs Dr. T's waiting room like a bunch of attention-hungry harpies. They seem never to stop talking, which may be the reason why the DVD doesn't even attempt English-language subtitles. One wants to cheer the old lady that uses her cane to maliciously trip one of these show horses. Meanwhile, the Travis women invade the slick jewelry emporium to work on wedding plans. Sullivan's monstrously selfish daughter Connie plays the social game while the alcoholic Aunt Peggy guzzles champagne. Left on her own, Dr. T's wife Kate flips out, sheds her clothes and goes skinny dipping in the mall fountain.
Altman and his writer Anne Rapp present Dr. T's Dallas socialites as artificial creatures insulated from reality. Wealth and security are givens in a mini-culture where the only interest is self-interest; the outside world doesn't exist. Most of the men are sexless drones and their trophy wives live in constant frustration. Considering the context, going nuts is an entirely rational choice for Kate. In the middle of this bad dream of luxury and entitlement Dr. T ministers to feminine problems, anatomical and emotional. It's a full-time job.
As is his nature, director Altman uses his energies to create an entire satirical world on screen, a canvas where his actors can 'do their thing.' Altman is all for dramatic freedom but his choices more often than not opt for the easy way out. Farrah Fawcett is given a mostly non-verbal role, as if that's all Altman felt she could handle. Other actresses behave as if they were handed paper cards with party game instructions. Laura Dern's card might read, "Airhead, spineless, closet boozer." Her entire role hits those notes and goes no further.
Kate Hudson's shallow, insufferable princess Dee Dee is more sharply drawn. Utterly convinced that the world revolves around her desires, she's incapable of respecting the minimal rules of her pro cheerleading squad. Tara Reid's Connie adds tension to Dee Dee's wedding plans by dissing the proposed Maid of Honor, Marilyn (Liv Tyler). Connie also provides Altman and Rapp with a lazy opportunity to lampoon the Kennedy assassination cult industry. When asked by a customer what she thinks of the one-assassin theory, tour guide Connie happily chirps, "Well, there's many conspiracy theories about that. You'll have to decide which one you believe."
Shelley Long is Dr. T's neurotic office manager, a clownish characterization several steps down from her role on the old Cheers TV show. Carolyn isn't even smart, and the script punishes her feeble attempts to be organized. Helen Hunt's independent Bree is the only candidate likely to redeem the female sex, as she's Dr. T's equal and above the pack of overdressed madwomen that crowd his office (which should be called The Snake Pit Women's Clinic).
When the movie finally gets around to making its main points, they turn out to be good ones. Bree confronts Dr. T with the ultimate horror, a woman quite content to play the field as selfishly as men do. The Doc believes he knows all female secrets, yet proves just as foolish and vulnerable as his shotgun-toting beer pals. Dr. T is a great hand-holder for neurotic housewives, but he's incapable of dealing with a thinking woman, let alone a real issue like Lesbianism. Yes, poor Kate has retreated to the asylum for a reason.
To bring a superficial sense of closure to his story, Altman reverts to a storm-tossed replay of A Wedding. In the fantastic coda that follows Dr. T regains his footing by doing what he does best, delivering a baby. The baby is a boy, a fact presented as a major victory in a film overrun by women. The desert setting of the fade-out also carries apocalyptic connotations, suggesting that the Dallas Anglos are doomed and another culture will rise in its place.
Altman is clearly more concerned with subtext than dramatics, which makes Dr T & the Women funny and clever but emotionally cold. Psychiatrist Lee Grant invokes a classical reference to Hestia when she says that Kate, the good wife and keeper of the hearth, has lost the ability to love. And indeed, Altman has Kate paint a watercolor of a heart during crafts period, just so we'll get the connection. Mr. Hipster Altman's message is surprisingly conservative: the spoiled / neglected Dallas women have gone mad and the men have forgotten how to be men. When Altman has to amuse himself with puns based on department store signs ("Guess"), the film's fingerpaint fun goes a little limp.
Lionsgate's Special Edition Dr T & the Women will please both the Altman faithful and the more casual fans of his work. The excellent enhanced transfer flatters the glossy art direction. Except for the doctor's Cadillac, every luxury item on view looks brand new and unused. Although the first reel seems intentionally mixed to make dialogue difficult to understand, the soundtrack eventually settles down. Lyle Lovett's score is unobtrusive.
The disc producers have come up with an attractive set of extras. Altman, his writer and his interesting cast (Gere, Long, Fawcett, Janine Turner, Reid, Dern, Matt Malloy, Andy Richier, Robert Hays, Wren Arthur) contribute to an enthusiastic edited commentary that starts with everyone's impressions of Dallas women. One of the actors describes Altman as a painter, open to change at every step of the process. The first of three featurettes presents writers and actors (from earlier shows as well) remarking enthusiastically on the director's working style. Altman holds forth in a separate interview. The best featurette is an excellent piece on the director's apprenticeship at a Kansas City industrial film company and his repeated attempts to break into Hollywood. We hear from Richard Bakalyan and Tom Laughlin, the stars of his first Kansas City feature The Delinquents. Director Reza Badiyi is present as well; he also assisted on Herk Harvey's KC epic Carnival of Souls.
A trailer and TV spots round out a pleasing special edition.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dr T & the Women rates:
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