That Obscure Object of Desire

Slick willie, indeed: Richard Gere with Helen Hunt in <i>Dr. T & the Women</i>

Slick willie, indeed: Richard Gere with Helen Hunt in Dr. T & the Women

Love hangs onto everything, accreting like rust on your first car. Seeing someone's sick, blotchy, exhausted face where yesterday there was perfection, or seeing the buoyant façade of the person you love collapse when she thinks no one's looking, or hearing the story that any fool would know had already been told three times before: Love, having no reason, absorbs all these things as nutrients. Indeed, the DNA test for romantic ardor is the presence of such flaws. When the flaws are no longer beloved, they are merely errors--and this is where love comes to its end point. But while love flourishes, the flaws are consumed ecstatically. Freud called love "the overestimation of the object"; I'd prefer to call it the acceptance of the object in toto.

For instance: I love Robert Altman's movie Dr. T & the Women. It is riddled with flaws.

The cast couldn't be less promising: Richard Gere, Helen Hunt, Lee Grant...Tara Reid? (Tara Reid, one of the young breakout stars of American Pie, is one of those actresses whose first job is baffling, and whose fourth suggests a Dealey Plaza-sized conspiracy.) The screenwriter is Anne Rapp, who wrote one of Altman's weakest movies, Cookie's Fortune; she has more than a touch of Oprah's Book Club about her. And the central romance in Dr. T is between the affluent Dallas gynecologist (Gere) of the title and a semi-affluent golfer (Hunt)--a sort of Tin Cup in gender reverse, with a lot of Ron Shelton-style "Hey, babe" stuff going on between the leads. On paper, it can sound a little sick-making. But I underline: I love this movie past reason.

Dr. T & the Women is not in a class with Nashville or Three Women or even Altman's most recent masterpiece, Vincent & Theo. But it does share a trait with his best movies, which is the ability to sustain several identities at once. On one level, the movie is a parting snapshot of the Millennial Boom, as seen in that quintessential American metropolis Dallas, which gets a Nashville-style multistrata travelogue treatment. The most piercing and accurate element of this portrait is the bevy of big-haired, absurdly overtailored women who keep bursting into Dr. T's office like the Eumenides. The best touch is their handfuls of little children, all identically dressed and toted around like teacup poodles: parenting as accessorizing.

At another layer, Dr. T is an epic fresco of the confusion of gender roles in the year 2000: From a failed, tense-stomached would-be Dallas Cowboy cheerleader (Kate Hudson) to Dr. T's unhinged wife (Farrah Fawcett), who has flaked out into a second childhood, and from the good doctor to the hapless, shut-out, overworking husbands of his patients, nobody seems to know how to be a man or a woman anymore. The rules haven't changed; they've evaporated. The put-upon, woman-loving Dr. T is the movie's pressure point: All the world's women want something from him, and the film builds to a roiling, seemingly Columbinean climax. (You could view it as a darker, wised-up take on the Robert Towne script for Shampoo.)

But most odd is that Dr. T & the Women is Altman's second allegory for the inner life of our 42nd president. (The first, Kenneth Branagh's philandering Southern lawyer in The Gingerbread Man, was 20 times less resonant.) Gere, with a clipped haircut and a community-pillar's erect bearing, gives the warmest and most appealing performance of his life as this healer of female parts who has a genuine, helpless empathy for all women; like the Man From Hope, he really does feel their pain. And also like him, when circumstances crowd around him like storm clouds, he feels cosmically persecuted. (Recall that Altman, a virtuoso of the me-against-them mentality, also identified ripely with the imaginatively paranoid Richard Nixon in Secret Honor.) Unlike the commander in chief, Dr. T has a mystical portal to spring him from persecution; and without giving it away, I'll say that it does Short Cuts' earthquake (not to mention Magnolia's frogs) one better.

To find a movie with so much incidental richness, improvisation, density, and sheer chops made by a guy this old (Altman is 75), you'd have to go back to John Huston's The Dead or Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire. I found myself smiling at almost every widescreen composition in Dr. T, and the performances are a revelation. Reid, as Dr. T's gothish, obsessive daughter, has the avidity and the scratchy-voiced screwball allure of the young Lili Taylor: Who knew she could actually create a character? As Dr. T's infantile wife, a doll-like Southern woman used to being treated "special," Fawcett has remarkable moments in every scene she's in. (As she dances naked in the fountain of an upscale mall, the camera tilts up to reveal "Godiva Chocolates.") And Gere, who in Autumn in New York seems to be acting toward his reflection in a soup spoon, may never have been better than he is as this chaos-addicted peacemaker.

I can't think of another movie that encapsulates the "What are we supposed to be doing?" confusion of this particular moment in quite the way that Dr. T does. (Much of the credit for this belongs to Anne Rapp, who really finds her voice here.) From the marvelous Kate Hudson's crucifixion at cheerleading practice to the equally stunning Laura Dern's descent into cooking-sherry inebriation during a single phone call, the movie is a luscious evisceration of every glib, upbeat, how-to-be-a-girl guide in the current culture, from Jane magazine to Sex and the City. None of the movie's legions of women know for sure who they are, and they look to Dr. T, guardian of their wombs, for answers. By the end, like Prospero, he looks to the skies.

As with all classic Altman, Dr. T is equal parts Jungian and sociological, offhandedly comic and as imposing as a WPA mural. Grandpa Bob is still kickin' it, still working as hard as ever, still making movies that crank on every cylinder, still setting a tone and rendering a nuance as well as anyone alive. As before, his abundant love of the zoom lens often makes for a gummy-textured image--but who cares? The flaws are the best part. I love Dr. T & the Women with an all-embracing heart much like its own. And here's the best part: It's not just that Altman isn't slowing down. He's picking up speed.


Dr. T & the Women starts Friday, October 13 at area theaters.