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Dr. T & The Women
I swear to God I'm not making this up.
The plot of Dr. T and the Women reads like the strangest Harlequin romance that's never been written (though, what do I know? Maybe it has!). Richard Gere plays Dr. Sullivan Travis, the dreamiest gynecologist this side of the Mexican border. Women from all around Dallas fill his waiting room just to have Dr. T examine their nether regions and give them breast exams. Some even invent maladies just to see the silver fox more often. Despite spending his days staring into va-jay-jays, Dr. T maintains a healthy, glowing outlook on womanhood. He tells the inattentive husbands he plays golf with that all women are divine, and tells another person that every woman is special in her own way. As she notes, she has just heard a gynecologist confirm that no two are alike. (Yes, that's a double entendre!)
It's no wonder, then, that Dr. T even spends his off-hours championing women's causes, like getting the city council to name a Texan highway after a woman for the first time in history. It's women, women, women all the time. At home, Dr. T has a wife (Farrah Fawcett), two daughters (Kate Hudson and Tara Reid) and his sister-in-law (Laura Dern) and her three young girls. (The casting in this film, you must admit, is incredible. All those women look like they could share a bloodline.) Older daughter Dee Dee is about to get married, which should be a joyous occasion, but cracks are starting to form. Younger sibling Connie is jealous, and Mrs. T has gone a bit mental. Literally. She is suffering from a rare psychological condition that causes her to reject physical love and revert to a child-like state. This condition is brought on by--get this--the fact that her husband loves her too much. That's right, my friends, Dr. T gives her so much affection, her mind has to invent problems for her so she won't get bored.
Poor, sad Dr. T. He's more than willing to stand by the mother of his children, but it's her that's rejecting him. Is it any wonder, then, that his head is going to be turned by Bree (Helen Hunt), the sporty, sexy new golf pro at his club? She's a potent force of sensuality. We know this because the first two times we see her, she gets drenched in water. Fertility symbolism doesn't get more obvious than that. My bodice is about to rip just typing about it!
I kid a little. Truth is, Dr. T and the Women isn't actually that bad of a film. Directed by the quintessential maverick director Robert Altman and written by Anne Rapp, his collaborator on 1999's delightful Cookie's Fortune, this 2000 dramedy benefits from a light, breezy air and a marvelous ensemble of actresses that don't blush from the melodramatic exaggerations in the story. (The cast also includes Shelley Long, Liv Tyler, and a gorgeous Janine Turner.) Once you get past how ludicrous the story is, Dr. T and the Women has that affable Southern charm that is as hard to resist as a well-made mint julep. And what better director to handle a woman's ensemble film than Altman? The man behind movies like the aforementioned Cookie's Fortune and the avant-garde Three Women is particularly good with female issues, and wrangling large casts is one of his trademarks. The five-minute credits sequence for Dr. T and the Women is as impressive an unbroken shot as the opening of The Player, with the director juggling multiple strings of dialogue as Dr. T's waiting room fills with a flood of women eager to feel the cool metal of Richard Gere's speculum.
Not that all of Altman's filmmaking this time around is as impressive. For Fawcett's very public breakdown, he uses the names of several stores in the mall to strain for visual puns that just don't work. Likewise, the special effects of a deus ex machina that comes in during the final act are hopefully intentionally poor. It's possible the director intended to call attention to the very unreality of the situation by making it look fake.
Only there is nothing that can save Dr. T and the Women once we hit the homestretch. Dr. T's world comes crashing down around him, and rather than find a plausible, satisfying way to rectify the situation, Altman and Rapp resort to a convenient shift into magical realism that pretty much negates everything that comes before. I get what they are going for. They are offering Dr. T a chance to start over, to reaffirm his values and be rewarded for sticking to his ideals. Only it doesn't work. It's a monumentally bad idea, and it turns a decent film into an awful one.
I assume that Rapp named Gere's character Sullivan Travis as an homage to Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges' classic affirmation of the power of crowd-pleasing entertainment. Had she learned anything from that Sullivan's journey, the screenwriter and her collaborator would have stayed the course. There were multiple clichéd endings they could have pursued to wrap-up Dr. T and the Women that might have been hackneyed, but they would have at least delivered on the light-hearted tone of the preceding 110 minutes. No one watches a movie like Dr. T and the Women for a dose of redemption through divine intervention. It's the kind of film where predictability is the allure, and it's a case where Altman, a notoriously quirky director, let's his quirks get the best of him.
This "Special Edition" is the second DVD release of Dr. T and the Women. The movie was originally put on disc in 2001 after its theatrical run. I don't have that disc, nor was it reviewed here on the site, but from my research, it would look like this is the same letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) transfer from the old disc. There is some apparent edge enhancement that suggests it might be a couple of years behind on the technology front, but it's otherwise a decent looking film, with good colors and no artifacting.
The 5.1 English soundtrack is very good. There are no subtitles, however.
For those of you that like Dr. T and are wondering if you want to double-dip, there are a couple of new extras on this re-release. From what I can find, the 2001 edition had a fair amount of bonuses, all of which are carried over here, including:
* An interview with Robert Altman (15:30), which includes some good footage of the late director talking about his freewheeling shooting style.
* A featurette entitled "The Making of Dr. T and the Women" (11:00), which is your standard promotional press kit.
* Theatrical trailer and TV commercials.
* A full-length audio commentary with Robert Altman, writer Anne Rapp, and pretty much all the major players from the cast (minus Helen Hunt, Liv Tyler, and Kate Hudson). With twelve people involved, and none of them in the same room together, this track is pretty choppy, with an outside voice coming on to inform listeners who is about to speak. Topics are all over the map, and what is being said is often not scene specific. Though, I will say, it does move with a kind of speed most single-person commentaries don't have.
New to the special edition are two featurettes put together as tributes to Robert Altman (there is also a nice chapter insert in the DVD case that hails the memory of the director on the other side). "Floating Freely: Collaborating with Altman" (10:20) is devoted to examining Altman's commitment to improvisation, and features his son Michael, many of the writers he worked with since the 1970s, and actor Elliott Gould. "Altman's Apprenticeship: The Kansas City Years" (10:45) talks about how the director learned his craft making instructional documentaries before going out to Hollywood. It includes a lot of archival photos of the young filmmaker.
Dr. T and the Women comes in a standard DVD case with a cardboard slipcover.
I really wanted to like Dr. T and the Women more, but as any Robert Altman fan knows, the eclectic director bristled against confining structures and so had a reach that often exceeded his grasp. Dr. T and the Women is one that he didn't quite get a hold of, but if you're devoted to the man's work, go ahead and Rent It and play it safe before you buy this updated "Special Edition" (Altman fans will often disagree about which of his films they like, so you neve rknow). I actually think most of Dr. T and the Women is decent, with a fine ensemble cast and some charming writing, despite coming off as a demented Harlequin romance. It's when Altman and his writer, Anne Rapp, stray from the comic tone into a totally left-field ending that they lose it, causing Dr. T and the Women to completely fall apart in the final ten minutes.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
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