Published September 1, 2000
Dr. T. and the Women is a typical Robert Altman film in being sprawling and incoherent and full of more or less purposeless and unresolved activity, but also typical in showing flashes of brilliance. Nor does it surprise that Altman is going in for a lot of sentimentalizing about women these days, since it gives him an excuse to patronize them and laugh at them and defend— redundantly, as it might seem to some—the sexual libertinism that is so much a part of progressive thinking these days. Altman, who has threatened to leave the country and go live in France if George W. Bush should become our president, is nothing if not progressive.
Here he tells the story of the eponymous Dr T, also known as Sully (Richard Gere), a fashionable gynaecologist in Dallas whose practice as well as his private life is based on a kind of Robert Gravesian worship of women. Early on, we hear him telling his golfing and duck-hunting buddies: “You don’t understand women”—but not as we might expect with any cynical or seductive purpose. Rather, he means to reprove them for their “phallocentrism” (as we have lately and rather hilariously been taught to call it) and instruct them that women are “not bad luck in themselves; men make them that way.” He goes on to explain that “by nature they’re saints, should be treated as such.”
And he should know. His ostentatious worship of his wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett), has suddenly turned her into such a saint that she has stopped sleeping with him—and doing even more bizarre things, such as taking off all her clothes and splashing about in the fountain of a very upscale Dallas mall underneath the sign for “Godiva” chocolates. The reasons for Kate’s actions are hidden in the murky recesses of her deranged mind, but the reason for Miss Fawcett’s is that she still looks mighty good for a woman of her age—and acting deranged is, as everyone knows, the kind of thing that wins Academy Awards.
Alas, it is unlikely to win any for her. She is not on screen for long enough. Dr. T. learns that she is suffering from something called a “Hestia complex”—named for the goddess of home and hearth who was also the patroness of virginity. This is something that allegedly happens to women “who are loved too much,” the shrink explains to the gynaecologist, and “not because of anything you’ve done.” The affliction, we learn, “attacks mostly upperclass women who have pretty much everything they need in a material sense, and in human sense. . .They lose the motivation to improve things because their lives are already perfect as they are.” Hence (here the logic becomes a little fuzzy) they regress to childhood become horrified at the thought of sex.
Much against his will (of course), Sully ships Kate off to an asylum—where she takes up kindergarten style art and introduces him to her fellow inmates as her brother—and promptly starts bonking the new golf pro at the country club, a woman called Bree (Helen Hunt). He commences to worshipping her too. Meanwhile, his elder daughter (Kate Hudson) is about to get married when his younger daughter (Tara Reid), who leads guided tours of conspiracy theorists around the significant sites of the Kennedy assassination, informs him that she is really a lesbian who is in love with her maid of honor (Liv Tyler).
As he is taking on board this information, he is at the same time trying to keep the crowd of demanding women in his waiting room happy while fighting off the advances of his nurse, Carol (Shelly Long). For good measure there is an alcoholic sister, played by Laura Dern (who is wasted in the part) and some pseudo-comic business about naming a Dallas freeway for a woman and discussion over whether the honoree is to be Ann Richards or Jayne Mansfield. The point is merely the chaotic mixture of all these things at the same time and some vague sentiment on the order of Lenny Bruce’s “chicks are boss.” I confess that the Altmaniac humor leaves me rather cold, but if you have the taste for it, you may well find this the sort of film you will like.