Treading on the obvious, it only takes waiting for the end credits of any film to roll for one to recognize that all but a handful of films have many, and often times a tremendous number of cast members. Beyond the A and B list stars, there are also plenty of unknown faces playing the "Lady of the bus" or "Man in the park" parts. We never know much, if anything, about these characters, but that's not always a big deal since they're usually used just as filler to populate any given scene.
Instead, our focus is thrust upon the protagonist, his or her best friend or partner, a love interest and an antagonist of some sort, all of whom are present to engage the viewer and carry or propel the film and its story forward from start to finish.
Just as there are socialites who enjoy and seem to thrive off knowing as many people as possible, there are viewers and critics who like the same in their movies, and filmmakers who all too happily comply and fulfill that need. While there have been plenty of the latter who employ large ensemble casts of variously developed characters, one of the best and better known among them is Robert Altman.
While the 75-year-old director has helmed all sorts of pictures with various sized casts - with varying degrees of critical and box office success - he's best known and most respected for his Oscar nominated work on films such as "M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "Short Cuts" and "The Player," all of which involve crisp and witty social satire woven into their multi-layered, smartly written plots.
Despite talent and previous acclaim, however, the auteur isn't infallible, and his latest efforts have ranged from decent ("Cookie's Fortune") to mediocre and disappointing ("Prêt-à-Porter"). As such, and upon hearing that the director has a new film, "Dr. T & The Women," one has to wonder whether Altman could return to his glory days and deliver another masterpiece of filmmaking.
While many critics and longtime fans will probably unanimously agree that this film isn't his most complex or socially relevant, and clearly doesn't stand up to his greatest and most revered efforts, it certainly isn't a disaster and manages to be both enjoyable and entertaining in its own right, despite various flaws that run through it.
Like many of his other ensemble pieces, Altman - who works from an original screenplay by Anne Rapp (who previously collaborated with the director on "Cookie's Fortune") - has fashioned the film with a multitude of characters and individual storylines, all of which overlap - much like the concurrent dialogue - creating a boisterous beehive of activity.
Unlike some of those previous efforts, however, the content here doesn't have much of a sting (beyond showing most of the women in a negative light) and its orchestration is at times not as precise and tight as some might like. Of course, not all films need to contain substantive satire and or discernible metaphoric messages about our place in the world, although I'm sure some critics and fans will attempt to read all sorts of such things into this film. Sometimes films can be present simply to entertain, and while this one obviously isn't a classic in any sense of the word, it's certainly easy enough to watch.
One's view of that assessment, though, will depend on their opinion regarding Richard Gere ("Autumn in New York," "The Jackal"). While many have disliked the cocky swagger that's permeated many of his previous performances, I, for one, have always pretty much liked the characters he's played even when the films he's been in haven't been great.
Here, and playing a more laidback and progressively befuddled type character, Gere delivers a winning and entertaining performance that centers the film and is certainly one of the best of his career. While the thought of Gere playing their gynecologist might have many a woman's heart aflutter and many men leering with envy, the filmmakers smartly avoided any such related sleaze, and the actor pulls off the character with the proper depth and compassion.
Unfortunately, Rapp's occasionally unwieldy and disjointed screenplay doesn't always support and/or enhance his efforts. While the basic story -- of a man so enamored with and surrounded by women that they progressively drive him crazy - has potential, the results are generally okay. Yet, nothing particularly special, imaginative or noteworthy occurs, although the ending will certainly be an eye-opener to some, in more ways than one.
That said, the plot involving the characters played by Gere and Helen Hunt ("Pay it Forward," "As Good As It Gets") is the most satisfactory. Embodying the one woman in Dr. T's life who isn't pampered or needy, Hunt delivers yet another rock solid performance, with the chemistry between the two leads feeling genuine, where with others it often feels a bit too contrived and designed for comedic purposes.
Less successful in execution is the entire bit about the doc's wife, played by Farrah Fawcett ("The Apostle," "Man of the House"). While her performance is notable for having her appear in the buff in one scene, others will note that her erratic and odd behavior a while back on "Late Night With David Letterman" may not have been an aberration, but instead an obviously good and seemingly natural audition for this role.
The biggest problem regarding this subplot is that save for Gere's character in a few scenes, no one else reacts realistically to her condition and institutionalization. While what happens to her is an effective plot catalyst for nudging the story forward, it isn't portrayed in either a credible or comedic enough fashion to make it work.
Laura Dern ("October Sky," "Rambling Rose") makes for a believable socialite alcoholic, but she isn't afforded the opportunity to do much with her essentially one-note character that ultimately doesn't amount to much. Shelley Long ("The Money Pit," "Outrageous Fortune"), on the other hand, gets some decent comedic mileage out of her chief nurse character.
Kate Hudson ("Almost Famous," "Gossip") and Tara Reid ("American Pie," "The Big Lebowski") make for credibly competitive sisters, but like many of the other characters they exist in stranded subplots that, while connected to the main story backbone via Gere's character, aren't interwoven enough with the basis of the overall film to give it a tight and cohesive feel.
That pretty much sums up the overall gripe that many may have with the film. While the various performers and characters they inhabit make the film relatively easy enough to watch, the somewhat disjointed way in which the various subplots are assembled prevents the film from being as good or engaging as it could have been.
Nonetheless, as long as you're not expecting another brilliant film from Altman and can settle for what some would call "Altman Lite," you may just find yourself enjoying the film to some degree, particularly if you're a fan of Gere. While not great, "Dr. T & The Women" has enough entertaining and enjoyable moments and performances to earn a 6 out of 10 rating.