Richard Gere’s head rises from a female crotch in the grabber opening shot of Dr. T and the Women. But don’t get the wrong idea. As Dr. Sullivan Travis, the gynecologist for the most pampered ladies in Dallas, Gere is no office Romeo. Dr. T is a devoted husband to Kate (Farrah Fawcett), a generous dad to Dee Dee (Kate Hudson) and Connie (Tara Reid), and a guy who tells his hunting buddies that women are sacred vessels and, hey, he means it. Then, as Dee Dee’s wedding approaches, Dr. T’s perfect life starts to unravel.
Leave it to director Robert Altman, the contrarian wit of M*A*S*H, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player and Short Cuts, to take this story of a modern-day Job and make a hugely entertaining party out of it. But make no mistake: Altman sends out no joke without a sting in its tail. The screenplay, by native Texan Anne Rapp, who collaborated with Altman on last year’s underrated Cookie’s Fortune, sets up a series of disasters to test Dr. T’s mettle. First, his wife goes nuts at a shopping mall, dances naked in a fountain and ends up institutionalized. And that’s just after his newly divorced alcoholic sister-in-law, Peggy (Laura Dern), moves into his mansion with her three girls. Then there’s Dr. T’s problems as a father: Daughter Connie is an oddball who works as a tour guide for the JFK Conspiracy Museum, which floats more theories than Oliver Stone. Connie’s theory about cheerleader Dee Dee and her maid of honor, Marilyn (Liv Tyler), sends Dr. T reeling. And now that Kate is out to lunch, nurse Carolyn (Shelley Long), who manages Dr. T’s office, tries to manage herself into his bed.
What’s an overbooked OBGYN to do with a life so crowded with estrogen and incident? It helps that Bree (Helen Hunt), the new golf pro at Dr. T’s club, eases him into a no-strings affair. It’s Dr. T who starts feeling dependent. Things come to a head on Dee Dee’s wedding day, when a Texas storm is only slightly more volatile than Dr. T and his guests.
Altman revels in throwing these characters into a pot and stirring with wicked glee. And he takes his time about it. The relaxed drift of Altman’s direction may be off-putting to short attention spans. But go with him, and watch the actors blossom. Hudson, a new star after Almost Famous, is smashing as a repressed daddy’s girl who dares to stretch her sexual wings; her scenes with Tyler have a tart poignancy. Reid is a dynamo, and Fawcett makes the most of a brief but telling role – Kate’s been infantilized by a husband who keeps her in a posh pumpkin shell. Hunt, who can be rigid when the material is off (see Twister), gives a loose, sexy performance with a flash of nudity that doesn’t feel forced. But the true scene-stealers are Dern and Long. As a Texas belle trying to dull her pain with booze, Dern finds the grieving core in a character that a lesser actress would play for facile laughs. And Long invigorates the clichéd role of love-starved Carolyn. Altman will be hammered for a scene in which Carolyn, alone with Dr. T in his office, strips off her clothes while his back is turned to shock him into sex. Has Altman debased the character and the actress? Hardly. Long shows Carolyn’s reserves of strength. And what of the cackling, primping Dallas princesses who make Dr. T’s office a circle of hell that Dante never investigated? Altman has a giggle at their expense, but he also sees their humor and gallantry. To call Dr. T gorgeously acted would be an understatement.
Still, the film belongs to Gere, who has never been this funny, this warm or this emotionally exposed onscreen. Dr. T spends the early part of the film wearing blinders. The disasters that befall the handsome, once-impervious Dr. T force him to probe areas of feminine mystery you can’t find with a speculum. Just as Job suffered without losing his faith in God, Dr. T suffers without losing his faith in women.
Altman orchestrates Dr. T’s odyssey with the precision, heart and lively wit of a virtuoso. The director, now seventy-five, knows he has as much to learn about women as Dr. T – the fun comes in trying. Altman ends his movie with two forces of nature – miracles, if you will – that defy explanation. Whether you find that ending a masterstroke or a maddening annoyance, you won’t leave Dr. T and the Women without feeling challenged. In an age of digital cinema that seems untouched by human hands, I’d call that bliss.