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 He’s withdrawn from the front lines.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.