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Oh, Doctor!

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

Richard Gere, as Dallas gynecologist Sullivan Travis, has never been more likable on-screen, perhaps because he's never been more human, more vulnerable, more there. After so many years of so many duds, after so many years of playing the ladies' man to little girls (and the recent Autumn in New York would fall into both categories), Gere finally gets to play a grown-up with grown-up problems. In Robert Altman's Dr. T and the Women, he gets to play a tangible, fleshed-out character after so many years of slumming it in lowbrow, two-dimensional fantasies. For the first time, he's not a movie star playing make-believe, but a cheerless man whose perfect life is anything but. Gere, who for years let his teeth do so much of his acting, can only grin and bear it for so long, until he too finally loses it. For a change, you actually give a damn about what happens to him.

Everyone around Dr. T -- his wife, his daughters, his sister-in-law, his patients, his assistants -- behaves like children; they whine until their braying becomes a sound only dogs can hear. They need, want, beg and bitch, and they fall apart at the slightest problem, hoping Dr. T will put them back together again. He endures the mental breakdown of his wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett); the wedding plans of daughter Dee Dee (Kate Hudson), a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader in love with someone else (could it be Liv Tyler?); the conspiracy theories of another daughter, Connie (Tara Reid); the alcoholism of his sister-in-law Peggy (Laura Dern), who has moved her three children into the Travis home; and the constant entreaties of his needy, narcissistic patients. He endures, because he loves women unconditionally; they're his job, his life, his faith. "Women are incapable of being bad luck by themselves," he says to his hunting buddies. "Men make them that way." Throughout most of the movie -- or at least until the dopey ending, which begins almost like a parody of Altman's 1978 dreary, dysfunctional A Wedding -- he actually believes it.

Altman and screenwriter Anne Rapp (a former Dallasite keen on satirizing the excesses of a city that specializes in overdoing everything) waste no time dropping us in the cauldron of estrogen and ego. Altman presents Dr. T's downtown office as a train station full of frazzled, garish Dallas doyennes waiting for the 10:15 that never arrives. They're eager to get examined by the doctor, to make small talk with him as he gives them a pelvic. Dressed as though they've just come from a Junior League luncheon, they hassle the doctor's faithful assistant, Carolyn (Shelley Long), until their plaints converge into a single blurt of dialogue.

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).

Details

Rated R

Across town, at a ritzy, glitzy mall, Dr. T's wife is losing her mind and, eventually, her clothes as she takes a dip in a fountain that does little to cover her nude body. Kate frolics in the shallow end as she goes off the deep one: Dr. Harper (Lee Grant) insists she suffers from the Hestia complex, a problem that "affects upper-class women who have everything, who are loved too much." Her husband's overwhelming affections have rendered Kate a child who recoils at the slightest touch; soon enough, she begins referring to her husband as "my brother." The revelation all but undoes the good doctor; Gere seems to shrink when Fawcett greets him not as a lover but as flesh and blood. When his marriage finally, totally collapses, so does he.

But he is not without a safety net. A friendship with the new golf pro at the country club, Bree (Helen Hunt), blossoms quickly and easily into an unfussy love affair. She asks nothing, because she expects nothing; Bree is the antithesis of the women in Dr. T's life. He doesn't know what to make of her; she confuses him as much as she excites him. Bree is the calm at the center of the storm, providing the few moments of solace in a film that nearly screams at the audience half the time. If Dr. T's patients aren't shouting, then it's Connie or Dee Dee or Peggy or Carolyn. They swirl around Dr. T, threatening to drown him in their incessant whining. Bree, who quit the LPGA circuit because winning became about "relief, not joy," is tranquil, offering a welcome quiet; Hunt plays her like a statue in golf spikes and khaki slacks.

It's tempting to dismiss Dr. T and the Women as trite, a cute little nothing; like Altman's previous collaboration with Rapp, Cookie's Fortune, it's so light a small gust of wind could blow it to bits. But that's part of its deceptive charm: It sneaks up on you until finally you realize you're watching a fable only masquerading as satire. (The press kit likens Dr. T's plight to that of Job, which is pushing it, but only a little.) The film's biggest problem is that it mocks an easy target: the privileged. You feel nothing for these people (save, perhaps, for Dr. T), because there's nothing inside them. They're plastic dolls shuffling inside Barbie's Dream House on their way to the world's longest shopping spree.

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.

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