Dr. T and the Women
What are we to make of Robert Altman? He's directed thirty-five feature films and dozens of television shows and series since 1955, and almost always as an outsider. His work is often poison to the studios ("The Player" was his revenge on them), but with few exceptions his films have also been what the studios are happy to call box-office poison as well. Technically he is perhaps the most skilled director in American film history, choreographing images and sound more smoothly, and choosing lenses and camera angles for better effect, than anyone else in the business.
And he has legions of admirers, of whom I am sometimes one, though not always. His new film is the story of a month or so in the life of Dr. Sully Travis (Richard Gere), Dr. T of the title, ob-gyn to the rich and gorgeous in Dallas. Women fight for appointments, whether they need one or not. His office waiting room is like an airline ticket counter, with lines of maddened patients fighting for a few minutes of his time, in examination rooms named for famous Texas women: the Belle Starr room, the Ann Richards room, the Phyllis George room.
Though he could no doubt have affairs with any of a hundred of his patients, what Sully likes to do is just play golf and hunt with his guy friends. Moreover, he loves his wife Kate (Farrah Fawcett) and his two daughters, one of whom, Dee Dee (Kate Hudson), is about to be married, though it appears she prefers her maid of honor (Liv Tyler). Meanwhile Kate is having a serious breakdown and is hospitalized, while her newly divorced and alcoholic sister Peggy (Laura Dern) moves in to Sully's house with her three young girls, whom she always dresses in identical outfits. The doctors tell Sully that he must not see Kate at this time, which coincides with his meeting and being smitten with the golf club's new assistant pro Bree (Helen Hunt).
In other words, we are presented with a film in the traditional Altman style. Much activity, overlapping stories, lots of back-and-forth with the camera, and editing that separates each element so that we're not left confused by all the goings-on. The film was written by Anne Rapp, who previously had written Altman's last film, the much simpler and more direct "Cookie's Fortune." Evidently Altman persuaded her that this time he needed something a little busier, and she has given it to him in spades.
Whether or not that makes it a better film is questionable. There was a charming directness to "Cookie's Fortune" that "Dr. T" does not have. In fact Altman repeats his traffic-control hubbub in the waiting room to the point of boredom; it becomes filler instead of revealing anything we should know or learn. And, another Altman quirk, his people are sketched in too shallowly to be emotionally affecting to us. As with so many of his films, he just indicates the emotion instead of allowing us to feel it. Is about-to-be-married Dee Dee conflicted about her lesbian feelings? We don't know because we never see her with her fiance. Is Sully trying to examine the remains of his marriage to a woman in a psychotic break? Not so we can spot it in the film. And then her attorney's convenient call for a divorce is much too mechanical for the film's good.
However, Gere and Hunt are wonderful together, luxuriating in the power of a great erotic love, the kind that comes only with the magic of an unexpected, ecstatic encounter, the kind that we all dream of having, and not enough of us actually do. Their relationship comes closest in the film to being between two real human beings. Gere opens himself as an actor to the deepest feelings he's ever shown on screen, and it pays off as the most moving part of the film.
This is a film that presents us with a whole menu of human lives, loves and lusts, but insists on staying right on the surface of all of them. It's Altman at his most typical, and you realize that he's not going to make the films you fantasize for him, that he's going to make his own films. And that you'll always be mad at him for not making someone else's films. Though you want to shake him and say 'Be our Bergman!' you know he'll just be our Altman. And that's not so bad.