Where Robert Altman is concerned, quantity equals quality. That doesn't mean his best movies boast mammoth running times - - rather that he's on top form when working on an ensemble piece with a large team of actors. By weaving together a patchwork of stories from distinct but overlapping sub-plots, he often digs beneath the surface of the narrative to uncover the unique atmosphere of the film's setting. Think of back-stabbing Hollywood in The Player, the country music scene in Nashville, the social tensions of Los Angeles in Short Cuts.
Dr T And The Women, however, is Altman-lite. It isn't trying to be socio-politically profound, impressively dramatic or bitingly satirical. This time the targets - - the rich end of Dallas society - are gently ridiculed, their self-obsessions and shallow concerns mocked with a certain warmth. As a neat in-joke, there's even a scene shot Zapuder-style with a hand-held camera on Dealy Plaza's grassy knoll, but Dr T is only concerned with mild character assassination of a luxuriously bored social elite. Treading water in this sea of blonde hair and designer jewellery is Richard Gere's middle-aged gynaecologist. He's the type of man who knows intimate details about all of the women in his practice, but can't connect with the one he really wants - - his wife. Rarely has an American movie portrayed a man reluctantly entering into adultery with such understanding, and rarely has Gere given such a winning and sympathetic performance.
The multi-generational cast of actresses around him hit their marks with more mixed results: Shelley Long is too wilfully kooky, but Farrah Fawcett shows hidden depths as the wife whose overly comfortable lifestyle brings on her mental breakdown.
As ever, Altman cuts between several individual tales, but with the pace of a lazy Texan drawl. His efforts are tainted, however, by a final "magic realism" section that simply doesn't fit with what's gone before, either in tone, style or subject. It's a poor, miscalculated ending that insults the audience's patience and threatens to send them home with worse memories than the film deserves.
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It's not Altman's best, but Gere's more charismatic than he's been for years. Female audiences will lap it up, but there's plenty for men, too. If you can, bribe the projectionist to cut the power five minutes before the final credits.