Dr. T and the Women

Friday, October 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Philip Wuntch / The Dallas Morning News

With Dr. T and the Women, maverick director Robert Altman composes the movie world's most eccentric love letter.

The film focuses on the flightiness, insecurity and competitiveness that, at least in another era, were sometimes linked with the female of the species.

Yet Dr. T and the Women remains an emphatic love letter. In telling of a high-society Dallas gynecologist who's bewitched and ultimately bewildered by big-moneyed, big-haired and big-jeweled Dallas women, Mr. Altman makes it clear he loves women as much as his clueless hero does.

The satire is spun with affection, and the barbs are cushioned with warmth. If, as Anne Rapp's screenplay suggests, some women want simply to be indulged, the movie casts no stones hard enough to dent their diamonds.

Dr. Sullivan Travis, as played by the gracefully aging Richard Gere, is a gentle Sir Galahad wannabe who hasn't quite figured out that Dallas is no Camelot. He believes women are saints and should be treated as such. He loves taking care of women and is nonplussed when reality kicks him in the groin.

He learns the hard way that some women, including his increasingly disoriented wife Kate (Farrah Fawcett), feel stymied, and even suffocated, by too much care. Others, such as golf pro Bree (Helen Hunt), don't want to be cared for. All Altman women, whether those in Nashville, Three Women or the forgotten Images, are too complex to fall into the snug categories that Dr. T places them.

Dr. T's odyssey of discovery reaches a climax on the day of his daughter Dee Dee's wedding. (Dee Dee is played by Kate Hudson, not quite as luminous here as in Almost Famous). Everything in the film is pitched toward Dee Dee's wedding day, just as everything in Nashville was triggered toward Ronee Blakely's in-concert shooting. Unfortunately, the wedding never reaches the comedic/dramatic crescendo the director and screenwriter so obviously intended. At this point, the film sags dangerously.

Mr. Altman has rather self-importantly requested that the media not reveal the movie's final scene, which will inspire some viewers and possibly even outrage others. For this viewer, it was a moving validation of Dr. T's love of his profession.

Like many Altman movies, Dr. T and the Women follows no linear plot line. It's a series of vignettes in the good and bad times of the medic, partly woven together by overlapping characters and a terrific Lyle Lovett score.

Mr. Gere delivers one of his most appealing performances as the put-upon Dr. T, anchoring the film with a touching, vulnerable sense of decency. On the basis of the current Altman movie and last year's far more formulaic Runaway Bride, he no longer sabotages his more likable aspects with look-at-me mannerisms. Generously forgetting the recent Autumn in New York, he's consistently gotten better as he's gotten older.

Laura Dern is a complete delight as Ms. Fawcett's constantly tipsy sister. It could have been a tangential role, but Ms. Dern makes each slurred syllable and bloodshot gaze count. As for Ms. Fawcett, she is called upon largely to look pretty and vague, especially when stripping to bathe in the fountain of the NorthPark shopping mecca.

Shelley Long, previously an acquired taste on the big screen, shines as Dr. T's ever-loving office manager, who tries hard to keep the "fillies" subdued while restraining her own feelings for Dr. T. Janine Turner also shows strong comic instincts as a very impatient patient.

Ms. Hunt has one of the script's most difficult roles. Without being brassy, she must play someone who knows what she wants and usually gets it. Her performance is consistently on target.

Mr. Altman overstates the importance of millinery to haute Dallas gentility. But many of his observations have the strength of truth softened by indulgence and ultimate acceptance.