Ladies Who Love Gere … Tryout for Vietnam

Ladies Who Love Gere

The swallows may not be coming back to Capistrano, but one by one the film-festival movies that took Cannes, Venice and Toronto by storm are coming home to roost on a marquee near you. Robert Altman’s Dr. T & the Women will, I predict, be one of the most popular. It is easily this quirky hit-or-miss director’s brightest, most accessible and tantalizingly watchable movie since Short Cuts . Like Altman, Richard Gere hasn’t had a successful film in years. But in the role of a Dallas gynecologist who is being driven slowly and most deliciously crazy in a swirling maelstrom of women, he’s like a passive male drone without a stinger in a seething hive of aggressive queen bees. Charming, beleaguered, helpless and entirely sympathetic, Mr. Gere gives the performance of his life. Frankly, I had almost forgotten he could act.

Dr. Sullivan Travis, known as “Dr. T” to the most beautiful socialites in Texas, is a babe magnet with a Madonna complex about the opposite sex. To him, all women are saints, sacred entities who should be treated as such. (A gynecologist should know, being in the position of seeing right through them, if you get my drift.) Dr. T’s examining rooms, his swanky convertible, even his hunting rifle–they’re all named after women. He’s seen them all, from the most intimate angles, and he loves them unconditionally. Unfortunately–in the neurotic forest of patients, nurses, receptionists and relatives who drag their cell phones, hair spray, bikini undies, mood swings and menopausal hot flashes through his waiting room as they break down, break up, and break apart–the objects of his adoration refuse to cooperate. It’s hard to stay up there on a pedestal with your feet in stirrups, even if your doctor looks like Richard Gere. One by one, they keep falling off in their jackknife stiletto heels, until the gentle doctor is up to his elbows in pap smears and yeast infections, and not much more.

His wife Kate (Farrah Fawcett) strips butt-naked in the middle of the Galleria mall, throws herself into the fountain, and gets carted off to the loony bin. His sister-in-law Peggy (Laura Dern), stressed out from a divorce and too much shopping, moves into his house with her three daughters and turns into a champagne-guzzling dipsomaniac. His nurse Carolyn (Shelley Long) unleashes years of frustrated lust and tries to rape him under his desk while he’s on the telephone. One of his two daughters (Tara Reid) is retreating from reality as a tourist guide obsessed with Kennedy assassination memorabilia, while the other daughter (Kate Hudson), a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, announces she’s a lesbian on the day of her big society wedding and runs away with her maid of honor (Liv Tyler). At the end of his rope, the abandoned Dr. T offers his raging libido to his club’s resident golf pro (Helen Hunt), who coolly rejects him for the no-strings life of a freewheeling feminist.

I won’t reveal the ambitious twist ending, in the style of Fellini at his imaginative peak, or spoil the fun of discovering for yourself what happens when Dr. T’s superpower to understand the mysterious creatures known as women finally collapses. I will simply tell you the film was not set in Dallas, a lasting symbol of the death of the American dream, for nothing.

The narrative meanders, but lively ass-kicking music by Lyle Lovett, Mr. Altman’s ability to satirize the fair sex with his usual trademarks (overlapping dialogue, large ensemble scenes, natural improvisation, numerous subplots interwoven in a connect-the-dots game that keeps you guessing), and a canny screenplay by Anne Rapp that examines the psychological and emotional diversities in a variety of beguiling females– all make Dr. T & The Women a very entertaining film to watch. Women behaving badly will raise some feminist eyebrows, but Mr. Altman is no stranger to charges of misogyny–and after all, these are not just crazy women, they’re crazy Texas women. (No other group of females in the civilized world is as consumed with status symbols, and who can explain their uncanny talent for making real hair look like Dynel wigs?) If you know Dallas, you understand their fixations with hair, nails, lip gloss, gossip, facelifts and designer labels, and also why they spend most of their waking hours in air-conditioned shopping malls. (It’s too hot to do anything else.)

Surrounded by so much hysteria, it’s a miracle that Richard Gere manages to give his most relaxed performance. He’s humble, likable, vulnerable–under pressure, he even seems to blush. The film is a veritable picnic for actresses, and they are all remarkable, but Laura Dern, in an uncommonly daffy role as a Texas airhead, is especially memorable.

In the end, women may quibble that the film insults them; the weak ones are brain-dead Lolitas and the strong ones are self-centered ball-breakers. Despite Ms. Fawcett’s skin shots, men may find it screechy. (It’s filmed at a wild pace, and pitched at the kind of decibel level only dogs can hear.) But still, Mr. Altman is onto something here. We’ve seen enough films about women struggling to survive in a man’s world. It’s refreshing, for a change, to watch a man trying to hold onto his sanity in a world of exasperating females. But what would we do without them? The point, from a male perspective, is that we might as well wave a white flag and surrender with style. There is no escape; the ladies are here to stay. And so, I hope, are movies as prankish, rich and perceptive as Dr. T & the Women .

Tryout for Vietnam

“The Army makes all men one,” says the narrator of Joel Schumacher’s brilliant, compelling Tigerland . The problem is, which one? Here is a grim, fist-in-your-face look at eight weeks of combat training in a boot camp for grunts on their way to Vietnam that makes you gasp for breath. Breaking free from the shackles of Hollywood, Mr. Schumacher shot Tigerland in 16 mm., without star names, for a budget that was less than the Perrier overages on his Batman Forever , and ended up with the best film of his career, capturing the same down-and-dirty confusion, terror, rage, frustration and cynicism as Saving Private Ryan , at a fraction of the cost.

In a backwoods Louisiana battlefield, a platoon of brave boys too old to be Eagle Scouts and too young to die for a military ideology nobody understands undergo the brutal final stages of infantry training before being shipped off to the front lines. As rough and dehumanizing as the rituals become, they are only a dress rehearsal for a hell called Tigerland, a mock Vietnam where you turn into a killing machine or die failing.

In the pulsating screenplay by Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther, every man in the barracks is carefully fleshed out until you feel you know them personally–but the combustible force around whom everything else simmers is Bozz, the catalyst who disrupts the lives of all the others. Bozz breaks every rule, goes AWOL, spends half his time in the stockade, stands up to his c.o.’s, even counsels the screw-ups on how to get sent home without a dishonorable discharge. Testing the strong and defending the weak, Bozz becomes a role model to the guys, but his resilience and indestructibility make him a force to be broken by the officers.

Mr. Schumacher follows Bozz and his more refined sidekick Jim, a would-be novelist who keeps a journal of Bozz’s adventures, through the hazing and the weekend whoring, but it’s just a prelude to the lurking tragedy that we know awaits them all once they reach Tigerland. Bozz challenges authority once more, but this time the platoon’s one legitimate psycho is waiting, substituting live ammunition for blanks. For such a small movie, the suspense is unbearable.

We’ve seen boot-camp movies before, but in Tigerland every cliché is avoided and there’s a surprise around every corner. The characters are neither black nor white, but real people, zits and all. This includes Bozz, who is really not a radical, just an independent thinker for whom the rules don’t apply–a combination of noble resistance to authority and suicidal recklessness, a reluctant hero in the outcome, played to perfection by Colin Farrell, a dynamic, charismatic actor with real stardom in his future. Mr. Schumacher has a firm grip on the material, and demonstrates a freewheeling narrative drive that is rare in his work. Tigerland is rich in character, skillfully staged, filled with wonderful star-making performances by its cast of unknowns, and vibrant and alive from start to finish, like the color red.

Aronofsky’s Nightmare

The world premiere of Requiem for a Dream found some faint praise in Toronto from the kind of people who love to watch every aspect of traditional filmmaking ripped apart, but most of us found it a nauseating and violently unwatchable dirge. Based on yet another suicidally depressing book by Hubert Selby Jr., author of Last Exit to Brooklyn , it pads the bloated carcass of a 20-minute idea into two hours of self-indulgent gibberish to tell the sad story of four wretched losers who sacrifice their lives for pleasure. Some fine actors waste their talents knocking themselves cross-eyed on their way to the dung heap, but even their exaggerated histrionics fail to convince.

Lovely Ellen Burstyn, wrinkled and lumpy beyond recognition, is miscast as a bored and abandoned Jewish widow addicted to TV quiz shows and diet pills who ends up in an asylum, drooling on her straitjacket. Jared Leto, disfiguring his usual boy-toy beauty in the hopes of winning some respect in mainstream Hollywood casting circles, plays her junkie son. Jennifer Connelly is his girl, who begins as a promising designer and ends up selling herself in sex orgies for money to buy heroin. Marlon Wayans, one of the seemingly interminable Wayans brothers, is a dope pusher who sees cocaine as a get-rich scheme and lands in prison. Before the lurid thing chugs to its sorry end, the four pathetic lost souls who live in the shadow of the crumbling Coney Island roller coaster have been plunged into a brutal, unforgiving snake pit of substance abuse and nihilism that is beyond the viewer’s endurance.

The visceral gore is bad enough (pus flowing from a hole in Mr. Leto’s over-injected arm, Ms. Burstyn screaming herself unconscious in shock treatments, sado-masochistic sex and even an amputation) but the director, Darren Aronofsky, compounds the gruesome details with spinning cameras, split screens, collage, animation, dissonant sounds and other contrived shock effects that leave you reeling. In the process, he loses contact with both his characters and the audience that is supposed to care about them. Requiem for a Dream is a punishing, harrowing and pointless assault on the senses, with all the appeal of a visit to the gas chamber.