Altman on Women; The Broken Hearts Club Is a Generous View of Gay Life; Two Family House, a Small, Fine Achievement

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Suggestively titled after The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T., Robert Altman's Dr. T & the Women will probably provoke controversy. Stupid people can be expected to cry foul at the love for women that naughtily bounces all over the film's screen space, simply because it is jokey rather than sentimental. (For sentiment jump on the bandwagon for Girlfight, not nearly so good as Wesley Snipes' Streets of Gold or even the recent Price of Glory but calculated to sucker-punch doctrinaire feminists.) To the perceptive eye and open mind, it should be clear that Altman presents women from his own comic perspective: they're all blonde and foofy?formalized in expensive clothes and big hats like the white middle class of Altman's origins. But Altman's comic fantasies have emotional abundance?he riffs on what women are as people, erotic objects, nuisances, workers, mothers, wives, victims, vixens, lunatics, lovers, lesbians.

Hollywood history?if not the history of what academics call "the heterosexual gaze"?makes us comfortable with certain female sexual stereotypes (thus even feminist critics have applauded Lars von Trier's Golden Heart trilogy of degraded women). Yet Dr. T & the Women insists that viewers enjoy women's presence as unconditionally as does its lead character, a male gynecologist (Dr. Travis, played by Richard Gere) whose Dallas office and home are abuzz with female chatter and entreaties. Dr. T's wife (Farrah Fawcett) retires from marital pressure; his sister-in-law (Laura Dern) moves in with her three daughters; and there are his own daughters, the eldest a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader (Kate Hudson) who plans a wrongheaded wedding, his youngest a conspiracy-obsessed tour guide at the Texas Schoolbook Depository Museum (Tara Reid) who jockeys to be noticed.

Dr. T's not a ringleader (his male buddies are a typically clueless bunch) and this female circus spins out of his control?especially when he meets Bree (Helen Hunt), a double for his own egocentric rationality, whom he mistakes for his soulmate. Here's where Altman diverges from the influence of the celebrated harem sequence in Fellini's 8 1/2; his extended gyno joke uses healthy-raunchy humor to celebrate how men and women are less at each other's service than in splendid, crazy symbiosis. Traditional notions (men-as-hunters, woman-as-nesters) get played out, but the movie's charm comes from its topsy-turvydom?Altman's willingness to upend sexual convention. Dr. T has romantic theories: "Women are by nature saints and their sacredness should be treated as such." "Women aren't bad luck, men make them that way." "Every woman I ever met has something special about her." Through this bedside manner Altman transforms general male-filmmaker p.o.v.?Ingmar Bergman's Persona-like fascination becomes humanistic farce. Altman had tried this previously in 1977's 3 Women (which was profound on the subject of individual social development rather than female psychology). This time Altman doesn't have to say he dreamed the movie; Dr. T & the Women plays like a wide-awake dream. It's an Altman fable like Pret-a-Porter, Health, Brewster McCloud, O.C. and Stiggs?the quirkiest yet least understood of his movies.

From its bold in-the-stirrups opening to its Robinson Crusoe finale, Dr. T & the Women must be understood as a satire of sexual customs and gender expectations. Altman never displays only a single aspect of any character. His actors (and actresses) expose their frailties and needs as characters, and these (sometimes embarrassingly recognizable) portraits become priceless: Liv Tyler as a mysterious maid of honor; Shelley Long as a overly devoted employee. Consider any of the roles here, but particularly Farrah Fawcett's: her emotional problem is explained as "The Hestia Complex." (Attorney Lee Grant holds forth on Hestia as "The Greek goddess of hearth and home, guardian of family life. She came to despise love and so rejected it and became goddess of virginal modesty... We don't know why, there are any number of guesses but [the complex] seems to attack upper-class women.") It's a spiritual and sociological surmise as remarkable as what Altman essayed in the great Kansas City. In so many movies (Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Images, Nashville, The Gingerbread Man, M*A*S*H) Altman has sympathized noncondescendingly with female crises, yet few people recognize the depth of his compassion.

Altman tests our fellow feeling when Fawcett's character absentmindedly wanders into a shopping mall fountain and disrobes. She recalls both Lady Godiva and Anita Ekberg in the fountain in La Dolce Vita?a test of society's female empathy and of the sexual gaze. Not even that playboy/Platonist Henry Jaglom has embraced female experience with such edgy splendor. When Fawcett's hospitalization disorients Dr. T's own self-image as husband-lover-brother, it evokes the troubles men and women share?a far more profound study than Girl, Interrupted. This takes us a lot further than the jejune Girlfight or The Contender with its insulting epigraph "For Our Daughters." Dr. T & the Women doesn't announce its humane purpose, but for anyone who's ever really known a woman, it doesn't have to.

It isn't within the realm of criticism to indulge gossip, and it is with wonderful gallantry that Altman lets art renounce defamatory rumor. In Dr. T & the Women Altman's devious largesse forces viewers to confront what they think they know about identity by challenging what they presume to know about celebrities. Along with Fawcett's resuscitation, Altman presents a mellow Richard Gere, well cast against gossip, to idealize courtly grace. In the midst of uproar Gere's reserve is serene; complicated yet no longer narcissistic. Pairing Gere with Helen Hunt also holds special, chivalrous insight. These actors trust Altman, at his most prankish and pixilated, to defend their characters' difficult, baffling humanity. The lesson: love can surprise us all.

The Broken Hearts Club directed by Greg Berlanti

Altman loves women's variety the way Greg Berlanti loves the variety of men in The Broken Hearts Club. Berlanti's approval of male gay life, set among young professionals in West Hollywood, gives it a distinct lingo and verve: "Dumb, gorgeous people should not be able to use literature in the pick-up pool, it's like bald people with hats." "We ended up getting our hearts stepped on like a Twister game." "If Larry Kramer saw us he'd defect." "There's not a person in this store who wouldn't pick you off the homo tree." Berlanti's dialogue isn't just campy; he has written characters and directed actors who can carry off gay life with esprit. What Altman's film is to MGM's 1939 The Women, The Broken Hearts Club is to 1970's The Boys in the Band?an alternate take on usually hysterical, melodramatic stereotypes. Both directors reveal a generous, contemporary view of select class neuroses.

Dennis (Timothy Olyphant), a photographer, says, "I can't remember when I first realized I was gay, only the first time I knew it was okay. It was when I met these guys?my friends." Gathered for Dennis' birthday party, they all deal with heartbreak?a condition as constant for gay bachelors as The Search. Berlanti hints at the depth of their search when Dennis sighs, "I'm 28 years old and the only thing I'm good at is being gay." That's quite a progression, from Mart Crowley's macabre sense of desperation to Berlanti's lighthearted self-rebuke. It's the result of 40 years of social changes?and social support. While following the stereotypes of gay culture?good-looking boys everywhere?Berlanti doesn't make the typical gay movie mistake of thinking up situations (setting up agendas) before conceiving characters. It's esprit that allows him to achieve this film's casual triumph of Hollywood (and self-) acceptance.

A precarious sense of friendship propels the movie (without pressing the extended-family button too hard), keeping its glamorous milieu credible as it also keeps central smart-aleck Dennis from being a bitch even when he behaves callously. These friendships are constantly, humorously negotiated. The opening montage debriefing each friend's heartache is far better than the smug Love! Valour! Compassion! It intimates the guys' inner lives and individuality. Shot widescreen (although it's no Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train), The Broken Hearts Club is tv-glib?with smoothed-out emotional textures. Berlanti doesn't pull off the miracle of the British series Queer as Folk (shown locally on C1-TV), one of the finest series in tv history, which aces the idea of honestly putting gay experience in pop comic/dramatic form. Queer as Folk stays sex-conscious but with ever-deepening social nuance (a Brit specialty; it's what you don't get on HBO's vicariously gay soap comedy Sex and the City). While Queer as Folk moves into remarkable demonstrations of lust, jealousy, parental relations, even teenage orientation (all worth detailing later), Berlanti can't help revealing his shallow American tv roots (Dawson's Creek) by giving such primal gay issues a mere gloss. Still, The Broken Hearts Club acceptably advances the struggle toward gay pop realization by keeping it entertaining. (Joel Schumacher's upcoming American cable version of Queer as Folk won't likely even match Berlanti's work.)

It's bon-homo-mie that distinguishes The Broken Hearts Club. Picking out a "Mo" (the gay one) from a group of strangers or reminiscing about "Ed Bradley circa 1980," Berlanti's crew teases and grouses recognizably rather than appealing to in-group secret knowledge. Dennis gets a kiss in the kitchen at his party that seems culturally serendipitous?a personal fantasy moment that coincides with the work of previous generations' struggles and politics. (John Mahoney, as Dennis' aging mentor, delivers the choice lines: "I love you. Don't worry, little kids and senior citizens don't say it for you to say it back.")

Righter than anything in Almost Famous, which boasts an inauthentic appreciation of pop culture (plus a silly outing joke), or Chuck & Buck, which claims gayness as part of its makers' own depravity, The Broken Hearts Club is at ease with the humanity of gay life. (It's even amusing that the single black friend, Billy Porter, runs just like Cicely Tyson in the homecoming scene of Sounder.) Berlanti challenges American masculinity with his guys' baseball game, and Dean Cain de-sentimentalizes that analogy as Cole (the group's Adonis and dog), who makes a bold, funny pick-up while at bat. Each man wants to be Cole, a studly ideal who struts around life's bases. But when Cole finally "makes it" in the movies, Berlanti pricks the stud fantasy?levels it?without destroying Cole's charm.

Two Family House directed by Raymond DeFelitta

So much casual bigotry gets vented in the first 20 minutes of Two Family House?about Buddy (Michael Rispoli), a Staten Island prole caught in the crossfire of Italian, Irish, African-American enmity?that the jokes, at first, insufficiently account for the real-life cruelty inflicted upon ethnic groups and women by racist clans. It's a jolt to realize that Raymond DeFelitta's 1950s-set sitcom actually exposes and answers American racism. DeFelitta's feel-good construction insists on humanity in defiance of mean racist history. (It's a Honeymooners episode that looks square at anxiety.) The narrator isn't Buddy, the Perry Como-loving sad sack, but an unseen biracial adult explaining how "The circumstances of my birth disappear into the haze of folklore."

Folklore is DeFelitta's affecting subject?how people live and regenerate it through work habits, family customs, neighborhood prejudices, thwarted dreams and making do. Buddy, who's never succeeded in anything, buys a two-story shack in an Irish slum, planning to open a bar, to the embarrassment of Estelle (Katherine Narducci), his Italian shrewish/princessy wife. He winds up the guardian of a pregnant Irish girl (Kelly Macdonald) and acquires a sad understanding about the culture he was born into. Since the narrator of this all-American whopper is the unjaded product of class mixing and interracial reality, Two Family House looks gently at each person's miseries. Presenting the first illicit kiss and dance of his biological mother and spiritual father, the narrator blesses their pain through respectful recall. That's how folklore works; DeFelitta ingeniously shows how we all, naturally, are both its subject and repositors.

Rispoli, Narducci and Macdonald convey human qualities lampooned by the pseudo-serious The Sopranos. Nothing in that pandering series is as delicate and precise as Buddy's cry, "I just want to talk with someone!" or Macdonald's own quiet anguish. Identifying with her oppression, Buddy realizes his own need to break out of custom. These feelings are played evocatively: amidst her shamrock-pattern curtains while it rains, among buddies working with their hands. Two Family House is a small achievement, but it richly compounds contrasting experiences. An unforgettable moment: Buddy's dread awakening ("He never thought of the people he'd known all his life as his jailers"). Buddy is shown walking lonesome, toward self-discovery, while everyone he knows pities him behind a diner's blinds.

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