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Dr. T and the Women****

The well-known Cole Porter song "The Physician" relates the complaint of a young woman infatuated with her doctor. The latter is properly impressed with her various anatomical perfections--detailed by Porter in a dizzying series of lyrics originally written for the inimitable Gertrude Lawrence, who left behind a couple of renditions on disk--but, nevertheless, each stanza ends with the sad refrain "But he never said he loved me." Robert Altman's new film presents this predicament from the point of view of doctor rather than that of the patient. Dr Sully Travis-- truly done to a "T" by the toothsome Richard Gere, aided by some excellent ensemble playing--is  an ob-gyn specialist in Dallas who owes his success with his patients to a highly polished bedside manner. But the good doctor refuses to take advantage of this situation and remains solidly faithful to his wife of many years, Kate (Farrah Fawcett).

Unfortunately, about ten minutes into the action Kate goes out of her mind quite publicly, stripping off her clothes and dancing in a fountain in a fancy shopping mall. But her collapse is only the beginning of Dr. T's travails which will lead him into a fruitless affair with the golf pro Bree (Helen Hunt) as well as the traumatic discovery--for him--that his daughter Dee Dee (Kate Hudson),  who is set to marry an all-American drip, is a lesbian when she runs off with her lover on her wedding day. Obviously, this is the kind of material that could be become drearily serious all too quickly, but Altman and his screenwriter, Anne Rapp, present  Dr. T and the Women as a gynecological farce set in the nation's capital of conspicuous consumption--a locale which provides Altman plenty of material for a satirical commentary on upper class life in the Lone Star state.

Kate is diagnosed by her doctors as suffering from a Hestia complex; her husband seems to be suffering from what might be termed a Diana complex. Early in the movie, the doctor rashly tells his locker room buddies that all women are sacred to him. Nevertheless, this declaration is belied by the opening shot which shows him pursuing his professional duties by spying on the private parts of the goddess he claims to worship. He sees only what is in front of his eyes and sees not what might lie beyond. Like Actaeon, Dr. T is going to be punished for his presumption--but with a series of pratfalls that land him on his face, rather than by being transformed into a stag and torn to death by his own dogs.

Farce often brings characters down to Earth, and Altman does this at the conclusion of Dr. T and the Women in what amounts to a parody/inversion of one of the most well-known scenes in The Wizard of Oz. Just while Dr. T is driving down the road in a state of despair after all his reverses of fortune, a cyclone whirls him into space and brings him back down not on the yellow brick road that leads to the Emerald City, but in a rural area where a Latina woman living in an impoverished settlement is about to give birth surrounded by her friends. The doctor arrives just in the nick of time to do what he does best--to bring new life into the world instead of pretending to be able to fathom the mysteries of the opposite sex.   

Like Altman's previous film, Cookie's Fortune, Dr. T and the Women is a quite relaxed work in which potential disaster is averted through a series of comic events. Directors today keep trying to revive the spirit of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s in vain, but Altman succeeds where they fail without any apparent effort at all, especially in the brilliantly choreographed scenes in the waiting room of Dr. T's office, evoking the memory of similarly choreographed scenes in George Cukor's masterpiece, The Women (1940). No profound statement about the nature of human existence, Dr. T and the Women is "only" a highly entertaining motion picture--which means that it's better than 99% of the American movies that came out in 2000.  And just for the record, the striking  photography is by Jan Kiesser.

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