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Scattershot Satire

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000


    'Dr. T and the Women' Don't pity the fool: Richard Gere plays Dr. T, not Mr. T, in Robert Altman's latest.
(Artisan Entertainment)
In "Dr. T and the Women," Carolyn (Shelley Long), the long-suffering chief nurse at a gynecologist's office, puts her head inside her boss's office door. Behind her, a perfumed herd of shrill, bickering women has gathered in the waiting room, desperate for office time with the good doctor (Richard Gere).

"Dr. T," Carolyn says, "I think the fillies are getting restless."

Carolyn snorts like a horse, shaking her head like an agitated Mr. Ed.

That's Robert Altman's latest movie in a nutshell: a satirical romp at the obvious expense of upper-income Dallas women, who have nothing better to do than amble and whinny their way through the designer paddocks of Saks and Tiffany's.

When they're not shopping, they're nudging each other aside for the right to spread eagle themselves before the great Dr. T., a.k.a Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere).

He lives for them. They live for him. But there never seems to be enough of him to go around. And with the way his personal life's going lately, things have gotten worse.

The upcoming wedding of his cheerleader-daughter, Dee Dee (Kate Hudson) has provoked a predictable frenzy of troubleshooting. The Travis household is under siege, thanks to Sullivan's champagne-tippling sister-in-law Peggy (Laura Dern), who has just moved in, along with her three daughters.

To make matters worse, Sullivan's beloved wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett), seems to be losing her mind. One fine shopping day, she wanders away from the Travis crowd and takes a shoeless dip in the mall's ornamental pool – in what seems to be a passing reference to the famous water-splashing scene in Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita."

While nice men in white coats quietly observe Kate's new childlike state (which they label a "Hestia complex"), Sullivan tries to get on with his life, including the wedding, his practice and the occasional duck hunting trip with his male buddies.

As if this pile of problems weren't enough, Sullivan becomes interested in a golf pro named Bree (Helen Hunt). She returns the enthusiasm. And they play a coquettish flirtation game with each other. Morally, the movie is forcing Dr. T. into a corner where extramarital relief seems justified.

Will Kate regain her marbles in time for the wedding? How will the potential affair with Bree turn out? Does that wedding stand a chance? And what's all this sudden, kissy business between the bride-to-be and her longtime friend, Marilyn (Liv Tyler)?

These and other questions in Altman's film have more to do with farce than, say, social commentary. And if you skim along the surface of this movie, you'll have more fun than if you submit the movie to scrutiny.

Clearly, Altman and screenwriter Anne Rapp (who also wrote "Cookie's Fortune") are sympathetic toward their subjects; they love these bold, colorful women. But, it's also clear they're hanging these gals out to dry.

Winky-winky satire like this may have worked well in Altman's first heyday, the 1970s era that included "M*A*S*H," "Nashville" and "A Wedding." But under the brighter light of today, the filmmakers let these gloriously attired country club women loom too large in the gun sights.

Ultimately, "Dr. T" is the cinematic equivalent of shooting well-dressed turkeys in a barrel.

Altman and Rapp wrap things up a little too preciously. Dr. T is supposed to be a modern Job caught in a desert (literally) of his own making, and there's a "Short Cuts"-style rainstorm that soaks and presumably rebaptizes everyone. But it's clear that the performers are having a great time doing this – the usual underpinning of an Altman movie.

Gere seems to be having the most fun of all, even though he's playing the kind of role he normally despises. As a woman's icon, a graying one at that, he deliberately undercuts his glamorous appeal, as if chastising his patients – and us in the audience – for even considering him this way. As Dr. T, his whole role seems to be something of an inside joke, from the way these women worship him to the silly duck camaflouge he wears on those duck hunting trips. This is where the subtextual winking works best – in Gere's self-deprecating smirks and grimaces; not in the resolution of a story by wind-making machines.

"Dr. T and the Women" (R, 122 minutes) – Contains sexual scenes, obscenity.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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