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Oh, Doctor!

Robert Altman takes a well-aimed swipe at Dallas's shallow society set

Altman gladly admits there's not much of a story here; his movies are driven by characters, after all, not plot. (When you get down to it, M*A*S*H feels like four excellent half-hour episodes of the TV show that followed.) He lets his actors roam free, hoping they don't betray the outline they're asked to fill in. Most of the parts here are so small they feel incidental; they're local color on the director's mural. Even Hudson's wedding seems like a subplot's subplot. But it would have been hard to imagine Goldie Hawn, the director's original choice (and Hudson's real-life mother), as Dr. T's wife. Fawcett is Kate Travis, spilling her public persona all over the mall until you can no longer tell if she's really nuts or just pretending; when she frolics in the fountain, you almost cringe -- there's nothing sexy about this woman on the verge. But the real revelation is Long, playing the long-suffering assistant who attempts to give her body to Dr. T when he won't accept her heart. After years of trying to shrug off the role of Cheers's Diane Chambers in one horrible misstep after another, she regains her footing. She's at once forceful and clumsy, a woman stricken with a little girl's puppy love.

It will be interesting to see how well the film plays outside Dallas, because Rapp has written a tale rich with details that may not resonate too far beyond the city limits. One minor subplot has to do with a women's group that enlists Dr. T to help convince the city council to rename a highway after a woman, since all of Dallas's major thoroughfares are named for men. They offer up three choices: former Dallas mayor Annette Strauss, cosmetics goddess Mary Kay Ash and, for grins, Dallas-reared sex kitten Jayne Mansfield. Outsiders also likely won't catch the joke of stocking NorthPark Mall, home to Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor, exclusively with wealthy white women -- the way so many of its patrons wish it really were. NorthPark, incidentally, is the same mall in which David Byrne set much of his 1986 film True Stories, only he used the stark interior to different effect. Byrne made the place look sterile, like a small-town tomb; Altman makes it look like a small self-contained city in which the rich gorge themselves on champagne and jewelry while drifting through Tiffany's. Come to think of it, Altman has made the best episode of Dallas ever filmed.

Sheltering arms: Bree (Helen Hunt) is the calm eye in the violent storm of the life of Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere).
Zade Rosenthal
Sheltering arms: Bree (Helen Hunt) is the calm eye in the violent storm of the life of Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere).

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