In this nine-part series, The Pink Smoke will be plumbing the murky depths of the filmography of legendary director Robert Altman, a master of le cinema who in his wildly inconsistent career created not only some legendarily awful movies, but at least a dozen films overlooked and half-remembered even by his admirers. We'll be skipping consensus "secret masterpieces" like California Split and Secret Honor in order to focus on his most polarizing, universally despised and simply forgotten films.
dr. t and the women by marcus pinn
I may not be a self-proclaimed expert on Robert Altman like I am with other directors (Claire Denis, Todd Solondz, Michael Haneke, etc), but I like to think I know enough about his work to tell when he's on his A-Game and when he's just phoning it in. Like in the case of Dr. T and the Women.
Everyone loves a big all-star ensemble cast (Pulp Fiction, Babel, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, The Departed, Oceans 11, Heat, etc, etc) because they get to look at the potential combination of Matt Damon, Leonardo Dicaprio, Marky Mark, Richard Gere, Brad Pitt, Steve Buscemi, Jude Law, Clive Owen, a Wilson Brother, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and George Clooney together in one movie. And let's not forget there's the very strong possibility that Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Catherine Zeta Jones or Cate Blanchet will be thrown in to the mix as the female co-star who serves absolutely no purpose but to look pretty. And occasionally, although not in the case of Dr. T and the Women, we have the token black character. These days it seems like Don Cheadle (Crash, Traffic, the Oceans saga) and Jeffrey Wright (Syriana, The Lady In The Water, The Ides Of March) have been battling it out for the #1 spot. And if the token black guy is a little too threatening, there's always ensemble cast veteran Luiz Guzman (Traffic, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Waiting, etc.) I understand why people get all excited: it's like, oh wow cool, it's every A-list Hollywood star together horsing and jostling around in the same movie. Oh boy, LOL, I wonder what it must be like on set! The problem is that sometimes when you have a giant all-star cast it's easy to forget that the actual movie you're watching will turn out to be the worst movie ever made.
Dr. T and the Women follows a (somewhat) similar formula in that it features one of the handsome leading men from my list above (Richard Gere) surrounded by an ensemble cast of Hollywood actresses like Kate Hudson, Liv Tyler, Laura Dern, Helen Hunt and Farrah Fawcett together in a wacky comedy. On one hand, you'd think that the combination of two ensemble cast veterans like Altman and Gere (star of Power, The Cotton Club, And The Band Played On and I'm Not There) would make for a pretty good film. But on the other hand. you have to remember that Altman hasn't always had the best of luck with all-star casts with films like Ready to Wear and Buffalo Bull & the Indians. It took me quite a while to actually do this write-up because I kept getting distracted while trying to watch Dr. T. As you all know, in this day and age of time-killing internet sites like Facebook, Youtube and xvideos.com (if you didn't know about xvideos.com by now, you're welcome) it's hard to stay focused on anything...especially something as boring as Dr. T and the Women.
Back in my day as a video store employee (late 2004-early 2005) at the now-defunct Connecticut chain Tommy K's Video, one of the perks of the job was that we got to take two movies home for free every night. Given my addiction to movies and my bad sleep habits, in the eight months that I worked there I took great advantage of that perk. What's funny is that I do remember taking Dr. T and the Women home during my Robert Altman phase, but up until 2 weeks ago when I re-watched it (for the SOLE purpose of doing this write-up) I honestly couldn't tell you anything about it outside of the all-star cast of actors and actresses that I'm not too crazy about except for Laura Dern and Matt Malloy. Dr. T is so aimless and unfocused (similar to Altman's The Company, disappointing except for the beautiful dance sequences throughout the film) that I found myself searching for porn and checking my friends' facebook status updates every 5 minutes instead of paying attention to what was on the TV screen. The plot centers around Dr. Sullivan Travis, an in-demand gynecologist living in Dallas who is surrounded by nothing but wacky and out of control southern women who're slowly driving him up the wall. Somehow, he manages to maintain his sanity throughout the film. This was like one of those Hallmark Channel movies but with the characteristics of an Altman movie (the constant background conversations and chatter that we're actually supposed to be paying attention too, the slow uninterrupted zoom shots from far away, etc.) Dr. T's wife (Farrah Fawcett) breaks down and strips naked in the middle of a shopping mall. She eventually has to be committed because she won't snap out of the persona of a 5-year-old child, which leads the doc into the arms of a new love interest in the form of Helen Hunt. His assistant (Shelly Long) has unrecipricated romantic feelings for him, his annoying sister-in-law (Laura Dern) shows up with all of her children in tow and his oldest daughter (Kate Hudson) is set to be married soon but is having a secret lesbian affair with Liv Tyler. Sorry, but I don't find most traditionally attractive Hollywood women like Hudson and Tyler pretty at all, so the thought of them two together turns me completely flaccid (see my praise of the unconventionally beautiful Alia Shawkat in The Bad and The Beautiful for an example on what actresses I do find attractive.)
The movie features no memorable lines and no standout performances. It's just a bunch of random, long drawn out scenes of nothing that desperately needed to be edited down. Dr. T could have easily been a 90 minute movie. Even better, it could have just not been made at all.
I'm sure Altman was trying to make some kind of a point about women and all the stereotypes and expectations that society places on them. I can just imagine all the debates this film must've sparked between people who actually managed to sit through it. You could look at this film as a big joke about women and how silly, fragile, weak, clingy and dependent they supposedly are (the exception being Helen Hunt's character.) Richard Gere, the only significant male character in the film, comes off as this god-like alpha male who somehow manages to put up with all the crazy, unstable, annoying women in his life. But I doubt Altman would make such a mean-spirited comment on women like that, so I tend to lean towards the idea of the film being a satirical and cynical statement towards the stereotypes placed on the sex.
The only problem is that the movie just isn't funny. Altman makes it a point to have plenty of clichéd female characters: the weak housewife who goes insane , the crazy sister-in-law, the closet lesbian daughter, the desperate middle-aged woman who keeps throwing herself at someone who isn't interested and just one stable, grounded woman. And the rest of the female characters are repressed, upper class, pearl necklace-wearing, southern white women. All the stereotypes are there. Part of me feels like this whole movie was kind of a prank. There's definitely some element of Altman having a laugh at all of us. I refuse to believe that the man responsible for stuff like Secret Honor, 3 Women and McCabe & Mrs. Miller took this film completely serious. Have we all been had in an elaborate O.C. & Stiggs-style prank where Altman makes us sit through a movie this bad? And with an ending like Dr. T, which involves a rainstorm ruining his daughter's outdoor wedding (another cliché) leading to a tornado that literally sweeps Dr. T off his feet, flinging him from Texas all the way to Mexico, he's got to be fucking with us on some level. With that ending, it's as if Altman drew influence from P.T. Anderson and the falling frogs from Magnolia. It's strange because we all know that P.T. Anderson (who served as assistant director on Altman's last film) was influenced and inspired by Altman's work - if you listen to the commentary track on any P.T. Anderson DVD, he can't go 5 minutes without dropping Altman's name. Being that Altman is such a pioneer, his work is usually what other younger directors like Anderson copy and/or pay homage to. With Dr. T, Altman has more than a few movie references outside of the ending: the title is a reference to the classic film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and the tornado scene could also be seen as a wink at The Wizard of Oz.
My biggest issue with Dr. T and the Women is the female cast. Let's not kid ourselves; this movie's biggest selling point was that it featured a large group of (supposedly) beautiful Hollywood actresses representing the past (Fawcett, Long) present (Hunt, then-slightly relevant Northern Exposure alumn Janine Turner) and future (Hudson, Tara Reid and Liv Tyler.) But the problem is that I don't find any of these women attractive. At all. You mean to tell me this cast was the best that Altman could get in terms of attractive or even semi-attractive women? I'll put aside the idea of casting at least one "safe" or acceptable attractive token actress of color (maybe Halle Berry was busy doing X-Men at the time) because most American directors don't have an eye for beauty outside of white women, but if you're going to make a movie as bad as this, at least make the women we have to look at for over two hours attractive! Shelly Long gives off the same cold prissy vibe that she did on Cheers, both Hudson and Reid (before & after the anorexia) are two of the most painfully average-looking actresses around who manage to get by because of their blond hair and Helen Hunt, who for some reason was the go-to love interest in all the popular American films during the late 90's through the early aughts reminds me more of an annoying high school gym teacher than of a love interest. Was Nastassja Kinski busy? Why not throw in a foreign actress like Juliette Binoche or Sophie Marceau? There's this kind of unspoken smugness that Altman (or the studio who promoted the film) had about their cast of female actresses as if to say, "We've assembled some of the most attractive women together in one film" with these glamorous shots of Fawcett, Reid, Hunt and Liv Tyler on the cover of the dvd. But in reality it's kind of embarrassing because it's just a group of either botoxed or anorexic blonde women who bring nothing to the table in terms of looks. Who was the casting agent for this movie?? Laura Dern, who I don't even think is pretty, was the only reason I sat through this film because of my loyalty to David Lynch and his group of stock actors (I actually watched the Charlie's Angels sequel once just because Justin Theroux was in it.)
If there's one thing I love about participating in anything Pink Smoke-related, it's that there's no holding back when it comes to criticizing legends like Altman. Sometimes bad movies can be fun to write about. Just look at Chris' write-up on O.C.& Stiggs. And I'm sure the others participating in this criticism of Altman's not-so good works will have amazingly insulting things to say about Ready To Wear, HealtH, Quintet and Buffalo Bill & the Indians (which were all taken before I could claim them.*) I was tempted to do Gosford Park, but then I realized its actually not a bad movie. It's just...not my thing. Sometimes the payoff for sitting through a movie as bad as Dr. T is that you get to bash it. But what's so annoying about this movie is that its not even that fun to bash. It's boring as shit. I hope you all appreciate and understand how much I struggled to write this. I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I hated sitting through it.
* Just to clarify: the idea behind the series is to write about Altman movies with bad reputations, or no reputations at all, not necessarily ones we don't like ourselves. There may be a positive review from one of the series contributors down the line...or maybe not! - john
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