Beyond Therapy

March 21, 2013

beyondtherapyIf any American director owned the 1970s, it was Robert Altman. Even Woody Allen’s emerging movie work did not have a comparable impact. Altman charted the rudderless course of an anxious time with films that were by turns hip, revisionist, down-to-earth, and arty.

His prolific output peaked with Nashville in 1975, a film that seems more and more worthy of being put in a time capsule, so future generations can figure out what the decade was all about. By 1980, Altman seemed to run out of gas, and lately he’s been turning out adaptations of plays (Fool for Love most recently) that are often fascinating but also marginal. He’s withdrawn from the front lines.

Beyond Therapy continues the series of stage adaptations (Altman and Christopher Durang wrote the script, from Durang’s play). It is an ensemble farce that satirizes the practitioners of psychobabble and their patients. It is also a puzzling and unsatisfying film.

As it opens, Bruce (Jeff Goldblum) meets Prudence (Julie Hagerty) in a French restaurant. They have been brought together by a personals ad. Imagine Prudence’s surprise, then, when Bruce casually mentions his male lover, Bob.

As it happens, Bruce claims to be bisexual, but is looking for marriage with a woman. Naturally, this causes consternation not only to Prudence, but also to Bob (Christopher Guest), who shares an apartment with Bruce.

All of these people talk about their problems with two wacko therapists (Tom Conti and Glenda Jackson) who have adjoining offices. So do a bunch of peripheral characters.

It’s structured something like a classic French farce, but it’s overlaid with a patina of pure put-on. These people are not characters, they’re caricatures, and they behave in inexplicable and irritating ways. No level of sympathy is approached, and you can’t even admire the film on the level of stylization.

Only one scene begins to have life: when Bruce brings Prudence home to his apartment, where Bob is getting very peevish. The strained attempts at civility give the movie its only potent laughs. Christopher Guest, who used to do a similarly swishy character on “Saturday Night Lives,” is actually the only cast member who clicks with the material.

The movie still looks like an Altman film, with the restless visual movement that recalls his ’70s films. But he appears to take Beyond Therapy strictly as a hollow joke—even the setting is a gag; supposedly New York, it’s very obviously filmed in Paris—but comedy is at its best when the stakes are very serious. That’s something you’d think would be remembered by the director who invested the original film of M*A*S*H with so much blood and cruelty.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

Is this Altman’s worst movie? I vote yes, but I don’t want to sit through it again to confirm. He was indeed in the midst of his string of play adaptations, but “Tanner ’88” was lurking just around the corner, and the return to first-rate moviemaking.

Bad Medicine

August 18, 2011

Bad Medicine is a situation comedy that relies solely on its situation to get laughs. The situation is this: A kid who can’t get into a reputable medical school buys his way into a tawdry Central American university just to get a medical degree—any medical degree.

Okay, that’s a funny setup. But Bad Medicine leaves us with that and doesn’t supply any material that might have fleshed out the premise.

The kid (Steve Guttenberg, late of Cocoon) is not all that sure he wants to be a doctor, and his college grades seem to reflect that. But his father (Bill Macy) is a wealthy plastic surgeon, and his son is bloody well going to follow in his footsteps. Mom insists the boy has a choice of careers, to which the kid replies, “Yeah, like Prince Charles has a choice.”

So Guttenberg finds himself in the unnamed Central American country, where he surveys his cockroach-infested apartment with dread and nausea. But the school itself is a worse shock: a sleazy operation where students experiment on the school’s five-year-old cadaver (the only one the institution can afford, so they say).

Predictably, Guttenberg finds some love interest, in the form of Julie Hagerty (Airplane, Lost in America), the spacey actress who never quite seems in touch with this particular planet. Her character’s presence actually strains credibility—if she’s as competent and intelligent as she seems to be, what’s she doing at this two-bit school?

She catches the eye of both Guttenberg and the owner of the university, a moody dictator (Alan Arkin). Arkin, as he often does when he plays offbeat supporting roles, finds ways of making this character interesting. He’s a widower who wants to make Hagerty his next bride, so that she may bear him the sons his first wife was unable to give him: “I believe that God has sent you to me so that I may spawn,” he says, in the film’s funniest line.

The movie ambles along, playing out tired gags. One sequence centers on a corpse-snatching escapade (the students need another cadaver, after all). Corpse-snatching is sure-fire comedy, as we all know.

And writer-director Harvey Miller tries to develop a heart-warming subplot, as the students steal medicine to help a group of poor villagers whom Arkin denies assistance. It meshes with the low-comedy med-school antics about as well as you’d expect.

All in all, Bad Medicine is just another space-filler as the studios wait for the Christmas movies to open. As such it can be pretty easily ignored, which is the suggestion from this corner.

First published in the Herald, November 28, 1985

Steve Guttenberg and Julie Hagerty—funny, you’d think it was a can’t-miss Eighties comedy. All right, possibly not. Harvey Miller was an old school comedy guy with lots of experience in sitcoms but not much luck, it seems, in directing pictures; he got Oscar-nominated for co-writing Private Benjamin. Julie Kavner and Gilbert Gottfried are in the cast, and, oddly, so is Allan Corduner, who played Sullivan in Topsy Turvy.