"Dr. T & the Women"

Robert Altman's newest film is a madcap sprawl about the women who love the men who love them.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published October 13, 2000 7:22PM (EDT)

Women who love men who love women know how to spot them a mile off -- yet if you ask us what their specific qualities are, we fumble. We might mutter something about how such men are good listeners, or have the ability to appreciate our inner beauty even as they revel in our most outwardly feminine attributes, or even that they just look at us a certain way.

So it's no surprise that in "Dr. T & the Women," Robert Altman can't illuminate the phenomenon any more succinctly than we can. Altman's tale of a Dallas gynecologist who loves and is beloved by the fair sex is a comedy with tragic crow's feet, a mad sprawl that tells more than it shows: It gives us myriad pieces of information -- some of it highly emotional information, but information nonetheless -- and asks us to process it with the logic of our hearts.

That's not a bad thing in itself -- hearts are capable of their own logic -- but "Dr. T" just comes off as too haphazard and clinical. There's some gleeful insanity to it, since Altman understands that that's an essential component of any kind of passion, but almost all of the movie's romantic lunacy is too calculated and sly; the picture never quite sweeps us away. And the gentler and subtler aspects of the madness -- a secret love affair, for example -- are left hanging, just on the wrong side of the line between pleasingly muted and disappointingly unexplored. "Dr. T" raises some seductive questions -- among them, when a man says he loves women, just what does he mean, and could such love actually be damaging? -- and mixes them up in a madcap and outlandish blender swirl. Through the murk, it's often hard to see the movie's heart.

Altman's pictures aren't supposed to be neat. You wouldn't expect that from a director who makes movies in which the clatter of language is both sustenance and distraction. In his best films, particularly "Nashville" and the elegiac "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," Altman overlaps dialogue and narrative threads as if they were layers of chiffon, yet instead of mistily blurring his vision, they render it crisply clear.

He hasn't always been able to pull off such slippery feats: His 1993 "Short Cuts" felt choppy and facile, and it was draped with a thin veil of misanthropic grumpiness. That said, though, even when -- or maybe especially when -- Altman isn't really trying too hard, he's capable of fashioning marvelous entertainments like last year's "Cookie's Fortune," a Southern Gothic mystery with both a breezy touch and a bit of bite.

The story follows the sudden unraveling of the happy and organized life of Dr. T (Richard Gere). That life includes a booming gynecological practice and a fine family, consisting of his wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett), and his two daughters, Connie (Tara Reid) and Dee Dee (Kate Hudson). Altman (working from a script by Anne Rapp) also gives us a host of peripheral characters, almost too many to care about. There's Kate's sister, Peggy (Laura Dern), a tippling Texas belle who, along with her three little girls, has recently moved into Dr. T's house; a trio of Dr. T's male hunting and golf pals, led by the wisecracking Harlan (Robert Hays); Dr. T's tireless and, it turns out, lovesick assistant, Carolyn (Shelley Long); the maid of honor in Dee Dee's impending wedding, Marilyn (Liv Tyler, looking heartbreakingly rosy and radiant); and a new-in-town golf pro named Bree (Helen Hunt), who's more down-to-earth (and wears less makeup) than any other woman in Dr. T's orbit.

Like those guys you used to see on "The Ed Sullivan Show" who could send a dozen plates whirling at once on a series of tall sticks, Altman takes great delight in setting his characters spinning every which way. But too many of his multiple subplots just end up wobbling and crashing.

Dr. T's odyssey begins when his beloved Kate, a gorgeously maintained knockout who navigates the local mall in lush cashmere wraps and spike heels, suffers a sudden breakdown, in which she regresses to a childlike state and has to be hospitalized. (Later, something she does sets a crucial plot point in motion, but it's never explained how a woman of such unsound mind could take such a decisive step.)

Dern's character, Peggy, flutters about in outrageous hats, flinging her fur-trimmed capes hither and thither, surreptitiously or blatantly knocking back strong drinks, but she ends up as nothing more than a caricature. She fades out of the film before we ever find out what her real story is. Hudson, as the flighty, soon-to-be-wed Dee Dee, and Reid, as no-nonsense Kennedy conspiracy nut Connie, both give valiant and amusing performances, but they get lost in the milange of subplots.

Even Hunt's Bree, the character who presents the biggest challenge to Dr. T, romantically speaking, seems less like a full-fledged character than a stand-in. A physically and sexually confident athlete in slacks and V-neck sweaters, she's the antithesis of almost every other woman in Dr. T's life. That point is made obvious by the never-ending upscale hen party that populates Dr. T's waiting room, a cartoon ensemble of Dallas society ladies with their lacquered coiffures, manicured talons and trim designer suits.

The catfights that erupt in that office, amid its cacophony of overlapping dialogue, are sometimes mildly funny and sometimes just cheap bits of nastiness that skirt the edges of misogyny. One of the problems with "Dr. T & the Women" is that it gives us a male character who purports to adore women and then fails to tell us enough about the candidates for this adoration. Of course it's not true that every woman who gets a regular pedicure and owns a fine assortment of Manolo Blahniks is necessarily shallow.

The movie doesn't let us beneath the veneer of any of these high-upkeep women so that we can discern what they're really about. Fawcett's Kate is the one who evokes the most empathy, mostly by the lost-looking sparkle in her eyes. But otherwise, many of the women around Dr. T really do seem shallow.

By the time the movie has rumbled forward to a surprise ending that dabbles in magic realism, you understand the reason for that: Dr. T needs to have an understanding of the essence of womankind restored to him, and it's easier for the movie to underscore that point if it has previously set up many of its women characters as stereotypes obsessed with lipstick and self-tanner.

Then again, women aren't the subject of "Dr. T & the Women." Altman's most inspired idea was to put Gere at the center of all those swirling foxtails and haughtily tossed highlights. He's the calm in the middle of the women's tempest swirl -- his Dr. T is amused by them, a little dazzled, but never quite bamboozled.

Gere began his career as a wooden totem of beauty; for years, through pictures like "American Gigolo" and the shrink-thriller "Final Anaylsis," he showed no sign of busting out of it.

But sometime around 1996's "Primal Fear," he started to betray glimmers of an actual personality as a performer, and in 1999's "Runaway Bride," his gentle charisma finally broke through, but quietly. His new, improved star quality is a little Zen, the sound of one hand clapping. In Joan Chen's sophisto-weeper "Autumn in New York," he was a dazzlingly human presence, and not just in comparison with Winona Ryder's consumptive pixie robot.

Gere has aged beautifully. He has a bit of newfound softness around the eyes, and his smile seems lit by genuine warmth, as if he really has no idea how handsome he is. He gives his Dr. T just the right amount of befuddlement: At one point he makes a dewy-eyed speech about how wonderful women are, calling them "saints," and you realize immediately how wrong he's got it. Even though the movie never quite articulates it, Dr. T doesn't love women because they're saints; he loves them because they consistently surprise and delight him.

That's clear in the way he banters with one high-society patient, who puffs on a cigarette as he examines her -- he reminds her sternly that she's the only patient who's allowed to smoke during an appointment, and his stringent benevolence is endearing and hilarious.

And in his best moment, he explains to an anxious menopausal patient that she has nothing to fear from growing older, that her sexuality is far from threatened. When he looks deep into her eyes and tells her there's nothing sexier than a woman who's completely at home in her own skin, you know it's not a put-on.

Gere's Dr. T looks happiest and most at home when his daughters, sister-in-law and three young nieces burst into his office for an impromptu visit, a perfumed blur of Mary Janes and hair ribbons, fur stoles and swinging handbags, high heels and Doc Martens. He's deeply troubled by his wife's illness (and her absence), but the women's and girls' gabble, as free and bold as cavorting dolphins, seems to energize him.

More than that, though, their very presence changes his demeanor. He's at his best when there are women around; why shouldn't he love them? That's about as close as Altman comes to solving the mystery of what makes some men love women so, and maybe it's about as close as most mere mortals could get. Still, you can't help wishing Altman had dug a little deeper into his subject. Men-loving women would be amused and entertained by such an exercise. We already know that when the best men get something in their eyes, they figure out pretty quickly whether it's smoke, or just cologne.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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