Dr T And The Women (12)

Director, Robert Altman; Starring, Richard Gere, Helen Hunt, Farrah Fawcett; 122 Mins

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The Independent Culture

On hearing that the opening shot of Robert Altman's Dr T and the Women has Richard Gere peering interestedly between a woman's legs, one might heave a weary sigh: here we go again. But no, this time it's something new, or newish. Gere is Travis Sullivan, aka Dr T, a revered and highly respectable gynaecologist, and he's performing an internal examination on one of the many Dallas matrons who flock to his clinic. Gere has played a doctor before, in the 1983 adaptation of Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul, when his bedside manner did not preclude actually climbing in there with his more attractive women patients. As Dr T, however, he's a man of exemplary tact and gentility, and the breathy admiration he draws tends to be along the lines of "the man knows how to handle a speculum".

Altman is again working from a script by Anne Rapp, who wrote his last film Cookie's Fortune and gave prominent roles to several actresses. This latest is similarly thronged with women, young and old, though how much sympathy we are supposed to feel for them remains, as ever with Altman, a matter of debate. There's no doubting Dr T's attitude to the fair sex. As he remarks to his hunting pals, "Women are by nature sacred and should be treated as such."

The events that follow will stress-test this hypothesis, beginning with the sudden mental derangement of Dr T's wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett), who's found dancing naked in the fountain of a shopping mall one afternoon. According to her psychiatrist, she is suffering from a Hestia complex, a regressive condition affecting affluent, upper-class women who are unable to cope with love and happiness. You see, there are some things that even shopping can't assuage.

As if this weren't enough, his dipso sister-in-law Peggy (Laura Dern) has moved in with her three young 'uns, and his younger daughter Connie (Tara Reid) has just spilt the beans on what his affianced older daughter Dee Dee (Kate Hudson) has been getting up to with her maid of honour Marilyn (Liv Tyler).

His nurse and office manager Carolyn (Shelley Long) shields him from the neurotic hive of women buzzing around his surgery, yet she herself isn't immune to his healing touch. The doc is whelmed in women, and it will take all his charm and forbearance to steer a course over the choppy waves of oestrogen.

It's not as if he can seek recourse among male company, either, his friends being a stolid Rotarian trio who munch on sandwiches between duck shoots, their conversation as dull as their camouflage. Of his future son-in-law he (and we) get scarcely a glimpse.

Yet suddenly there is a rock to cling to in the shape of Bree (Helen Hunt), the new assistant golf pro at his country club – and a model of good sense.

Bree is not like the women he knows: she's self-confident, she takes charge, and she can teach him a thing or two about his golf swing (useful tips, incidentally, not the mystical guff Will Smith passed off as coaching in The Legend of Bagger Vance). When he suggests dinner, she trumps the offer and invites him home – and she barbecues the steaks.

It's as well that Helen Hunt plays this marvel of independence; her natural ease and relaxed drollery are what the film needs as much as the beleaguered doctor. Up to this point it's hard to understand why Dr T is so devoted to the opposite sex, given that the women in his life are spoilt, garrulous, and shrilly self-obsessed. Altman sets the tone instantly with one of his long, sinuous tracking shots around the clinic waiting room, where the overlapping voices of women with too much time and money on their hands build to a madhouse crescendo.

The contrast with them and Hunt is especially marked in Dona Granata's costume designs: the dramatic capes, pillbox hats and fur chokers worn by the Dallas society ladies look plain silly next to Bree's sporty whites and soft sweaters.

Dr T and the Women is typical of Altman in its preference for atmosphere over story; it often seems in his films that he simply surrounds himself with actors and tells them to get on with it. That loose, improvisatory style has served him wonderfully, of course, on the ensemble stages of Nashville or A Wedding, or in the poisonously seductive milieu of The Player. With material as unchallenging as this, though, all that's communicated is an irritable sort of vagueness, pepped up by a sharp dash of misanthropy.

That Altman doesn't really like these people isn't surprising – he's never shown much love of humankind; what's damaging is that he doesn't seem interested in them.

Aside from Hunt, the women of the title get pretty short shrift, their main purpose apparently being to reveal to us their empty, cosseted lives and to ensure that Dr T never has a moment's peace.

To say this belongs among the minor Altmans is practically to tell the story of the director's career since the 1970s.

Apart from The Player and Short Cuts, there is hardly a film of his in the last 20 years you'd willingly catch again on late-night TV. Yet, as with minor Woody Allens, you keep watching them, waiting for a small echo of former greatness, some evidence that our faith was not in vain.

Strange to report, but the best thing about this latest is Gere himself as the put-upon doctor; instead of his customary narcissism there is a decency, even a chivalry, that's quite new to him, and if the heavy weather of the ending feels clunky in its symbolism there emerges a gratifying sense of a man who's been through hell and come out the other side. The physician, finally, has healed himself.

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