Bedside manner

Robert Altman does Dallas with Dr. T and the Women

I was intrigued to hear about Robert Altman's new comedy Mr. T and the Women. Teaming Altman and Mr. T sounds like a hoot: "I pity the fool! I pity the "What's that? Oh, it's "Dr." T and the Women that's very different. You mean like that Dr. Seuss movie, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T? Because that would be cool, too ...
Anyway, Altman's Dr. T is, in fact, a beloved Dallas OB-GYN played by Richard Gere, which isn't quite as fun as the other notions. Nevertheless, Dr. T and the Women acquits itself agreeably as a breezy lark that drifts with the lightest of touches, without rousing itself enough to prompt any big laughs or fresh ideas.
Dr. Sullivan Travis, nicknamed "Dr. T," has a practice that caters to Southern socialites, giving his perpetually packed waiting room the character of a hotel tea room or luxury spa. Already surrounded by femininity through his profession, Dr. T is increasingly seeing women take over his personal life, from the boozing of his visiting sister-in-law (Laura Dern), the conspiratorial theorizing of his younger daughter (Tara Reid) and the impending wedding of his older daughter (Almost Famous' Kate Hudson), who seems less interested in her groom than her maid of honor (Liv Tyler).
Things grow even more convoluted when Dr. T's wife Kate (Farrah Fawcett), already ethereal, begins displaying increasingly erratic behavior in public. His distaff employees and patients are drawn to his tender loving care, but he finds himself attracted to a sharp, capable golf pro named Bree (Helen Hunt), who takes a job at Dr. T's country club.
Screenwriter Anne Rapp also penned Altman's previous film, the sleeper comedy Cookie's Fortune, which did justice to the whimsy of the small-town South. Altman and she give Dr. T a comparable tone, which involves plenty of comic exaggeration of what passes for Texas aristocracy, without going over the top. Dr. T's patients and relatives invariably wear outfits with fur, feathers or leopard prints, but the film never becomes a burlesque parade a la Steel Magnolias. Rapp's scripts wouldn't be mistaken for documentaries (and her titles are severely lacking), but she has a good understanding of Southern quirks.
The film also represents Altman's latest collaboration with Lyle Lovett, who appeared in four of his previous films (The Player, Short Cuts, Ready to Wear and Cookie's Fortune). Here he composes the score, enlivened with plenty of western swing fiddle. Lovett's music goes a long way to foster good will for Dr. T even as the plot becomes strained and silly.
Based on an actual Dallas doctor, Dr. T is presented essentially as the only drone in a hive filled with queen bees, and we go for long stretches seeing no other men but Gere.
Here Altman seems to be imitating one of Fellini's tributes to the opposite sex, particularly with an out-of-nowhere venture into magic realism at the end. This can lead both directors into contradictions, offering genuine appreciation for the bodies and hearts of women of all ages, while also making them seem generally foolish or flighty as a gender. Altman douses the film with rainstorms and sprinklers, the wetness equated with sex, while the final scene, unaccountably, features every bit of a live on-camera birth.
Perhaps the weird aspects would integrate better if the film had better jokes. When Fawcett's Kate goes missing at a ritzy shopping mall, the camera thuddingly puns by showing the storefront for "Guess" during the search. When Kate is found frolicking nude in a fountain, we similarly see the logo for "Godiva." Dr. T increasingly tries for a screwball comedy tone in its last lap, and the forced antics at the wedding ceremony make you sorely miss the restraint of A Wedding, perhaps the director's most dryly hilarious film.
Dr. T may offer a career boost for several actresses best known for television. Shelley Long typifies the harried manager of every doctor's office you've ever visited, while Janine Turner has a pleasant appearance as a lovelorn patient. Fawcett makes a convincing space-case, bolstered by her notoriously scattered talk show appearances. Hunt simply makes Bree a model of capability, exactly what you'd expect from a professional woman golfer.
Gere's usually reserved acting style here nicely fits Dr. T as a smart but mellow Southern gent. But ultimately, Dr. T and the Women is a little too laid-back for its own good, often likable but never getting around to making a point. Perhaps Altman, like Dr. T, found himself distracted in the company of women.