[Written for The Herald]
There are two parts to the title Dr. T and the Women. Let’s take each part separately.
The women are the ladies in the orbit of Dr. Sully Travis, a Dallas gynecologist. Dr. T has a wife (Farrah Fawcett) who is quietly losing her mind, a sister-in-law (Laura Dern) with Ivana Trump inclinations, and two daughters. The elder daughter (Kate Hudson, of Almost Famous), a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, is about to get married, causing much hullabaloo; the younger daughter (Tara Reid, from American Pie) gives tours of the JFK assassination plaza, and sees conspiracies wherever she looks. A golf pro (Helen Hunt) at Dr. T’s country club also figures in his life, as a possible new direction for his emotional energy.
Then there’s Dr. T’s practice, which is buzzing with rich, pushy ladies, some of whom seem more interested in Dr. T than their continuing good health. His head nurse (Shelley Long) rules the chaotic office, but she too longs for the personal attention of her boss.
Those are the women. While comically exaggerated, they are all fun to be around, and the actresses who play them are inventive and colorful.
Now for Dr. T. He is at the center of this whirlwind, and he is clearly meant to be the kind of beleaguered man played by Cary Grant during his sophisticated peak. However, Sully Travis is played by Richard Gere, and this is the movie’s biggest problem. Not known for his comedic touch, Gere seems shut down when he should be simmering with exasperation. After the initial idea wears off (Richard Gere as a gynecologist — ha ha), his presence loses steam. Ten years ago, the role would have been perfect for Warren Beatty.
Dr. T and the Women is directed by Robert Altman and written by Anne Rapp, who last teamed on the uneven Cookie’s Fortune. It’s a wry view of Dallas, and the oversized folk who populate Big D high society. The best distillation of this comes with Laura Dern’s performance; this underused actress is in a ditzy, tipsy groove, her cellphone attached to one hand and a champagne glass to the other. Elsewhere, Kate Hudson gives further notice of why she is such a promising young actress, and Liv Tyler provides a quiet counterpoint to the ongoing circus, as Hudson’s college pal (and one of the only non-blondes in the film).
The relationship between Helen Hunt and Gere is somewhat mysterious. But it does introduce a welcome note of melancholy, more so than in any Altman film since The Long Goodbye. The Farrah Fawcett character is also quite touching, and the actress gives a tender performance, even if her casting seems a somewhat cruel spinoff of her distracted appearance with David Letterman.
Altman tender? Could it be the caustic director is mellowing? Not a chance, as you’ll discover if you stick around for the ending, which spins (quite literally) into another realm. It’s a desperate conclusion to a film that loses its way after a most promising beginning. Still, this movie is worth a look for a number of reasons, and anyone who’s ever been to Dallas will get it right away.