Dr. T & The Women
Robert Altman, Director; Anne Rapp, writer; Artisan Home Entertainment; Anamorphic 16 x 9; Dolby Digital 5.1; 122 Minutes
This film makes me think about an old Q&A joke: “What Happens when you play a country song backwards?” “Yer wife comes home, ya git yer truck back, the dawg comes back…” Well, Dr. T & The Women is a little like the country song played frontwards. We see the perfect life of the perfect upscale Dallas family unravel around Dr. T, a popular doctor. First his wife lapses into a child-like state, and then the planning of his daughter’s wedding goes awry, and more personal disasters follow, which I won’t reveal to spoil the film for you.
Though not as bitingly satiric as American Beauty, this film shares its vision of dysfunctional families in a dysfunctional world. It also has Altman’s deft comic touch and wonderful use of imagery and word play. I’m not sure why this film did not do better at the box office. Maybe it was just too good for today’s movie-going crowd. Maybe women don’t want to go to a film about their personal doctor.
Richard Gere is very appealing as the gynecologist/obstetrician (there are lots of speculum jokes and the like), and Helen Hunt also is very good as a golf pro (not a bad swing, either). Particularly outstanding is the score by Lyle Lovett, which fits the urban cowboy ambience of the film perfectly.
Thanks to contributing editor Neil Muncy, I was able to see this film on the giant Roy Thomson Hall screen set up by Neil with full surround sound at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Dr. T was a gala premiere. What we watched, with half-a-dozen movie folks, was an afternoon pre-Gala screening to make sure everything was right with the print and the sound. It’s very seldom one has this experience (I’ve only had it once before on a JBL junket at the Academy Theatre in LA with the excruciatingly awful The Horse Whisperer), that of seeing a perfect new print in a state-of-the-art viewing facility without the usual idiots around you (Thank God for home theatre).
Watching the DVD, I had to settle for a 6-foot screen filled by the Seleco HT200 DLP projector, which was fine with me. Altman has a very recognizable signtature as a film maker right from the opening, which is almost always a long pan/zoom continuous shot. Here there are two in succession, the first of Dr. T examining a nosy elderly patient that establishes his basic personal background and elements of the plot, followed by a shot that shows the barely controlled chaos of the busy waiting room, this one reminiscent of the very long opening scene of The Player. Most directors don’t employ such shots because they are complex, require considerable blocking out, and are nearly impossible to edit. Everything has to be done right, and here it is managed with the main female cast and 30 extras as patients, the credits showing over the maelstrom. Maybe it’s my strange sense of humour, but a line of poetry popped into my head while watching this scene: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot).
“The women” in large gatherings of creative or destructive chaos are a recurring motif of the film, seen later in a shopping mall, at a wedding shower, and at the wedding itself. Another motif that accompanies each step in the destruction of Dr. T’s comfortable life is the thunderstorm, and when the big one hits, it becomes a tornado. What a combination: women and weather!
Special Features - There are trailers and TV spots, and an informative Featurette about the making of the film, as well as a fascinating interview with Altman, who says about his ensemble cast and the 30 women extras and their complex chaotic scenes: “When I can’t control things I have to deal with what’s there…Hopefully, they’re gonna give me something I don’t expect.”
He goes on to say that he depended on the improv abilities of the cast in many cases, and that writer Anne Rapp was on the set for shooting to provide any necessary script revisions.
In the Cast and Crew Information we find that his son Stephen was the Production Designer, while the Cinematographer was a Canadian, Jan Kiesser. Both have worked on numerous Altman films, as have many other crew members. There really is an Altman ensemble core crew.
Another example is Lyle Lovett, who has acted in several previous films, but here created a nearly perfect score. Even his own songs, for example, She’s Already Made Up Her Mind, fit the action and events perfectly.
I must return to the cinematography, which is stunning: naturalistic and vivid in both indoor and outdoor scenes, with a sweeping use of the camera in pans and zooms. It almost never seems to be still, just like all the movie’s characters.
Dr. T & The Women is a brilliant film that is simultaneously sympathetic and unsentimental, and even Altman admits that he doesn’t expect viewers to be able to take it all in at first viewing. For that reason, it will probably be more successful as a DVD than it was at the box office.