Two new movies hang women out to dry while pretending to be sensitive and supportive. 

Female Trouble

In a lackluster movie year where strong roles for women have been nearly nonexistent, some might want to cheer the new films from directors Robert Altman and Rod Lurie. Not that their movies — "Dr. T and The Women" and "The Contender," respectively — aren't entertaining. They are. It's just that they aren't what they claim to be.

Altman would have us believe that his selfless gynecologist hero (RichardGere) truly cares for and about women. Except the good doctor's over-pampered wife (Farrah Fawcett) is barely off in a loony bin before he's wining and dining the preternaturally cheerful new golf pro (Helen Hunt). This modern-day twist on the Trials of Job may seem like it cares about the Dallas-society women who keep Dr. T's bottom line healthy, but it keeps these conspicuous consumers in the satirical crosshairs a tad too long.

Lurie doesn't treat women much better in his tarted-up, liberal retread of Otto Preminger's staid, right-wing-leaning "Advise and Consent." The premise of "The Contender" — as well as the pre-release press — appears to push for equal rights. But yet, the first time we catch a glimpse of Sen. Laine Hanson (the incredible Joan Allen), whom the sitting president (Jeff Bridges) wants to nominate to fill the vacant vice-presidency, she's atop her desk in the U.S. Capitol building in the throes of passion with a male co-worker. We soon learn that the worker is her husband, but the seed of doubt has been planted.

President Evans wants to be known as the man who cracked the gender barrier in the White House. But Republican Shelly Runyon (a nearly unrecognizable Gary Oldman), who chairs the powerful judiciary committee, has no intention of confirming the liberal lady whose original party affiliation was the GOP. Runyon would prefer the charismatic democratic governor of Virginia (William Petersen). The unified cheers of women everywhere mean little in the backstabbing, morally bankrupt halls of Congress. Instead, what quickly surfaces on the Internet are college-era photos of what appears to be the VP-nominee servicing two men at once.

As the FBI investigates, so do all the president's men (in particular, Sam Elliott and Saul Rubinek), and everyone becomes obsessed with why the senator isn't talking. She takes the moral high ground, refusing to respond to the charges, saying the questions about her past private life are inappropriate.

But Lurie has his own double-dealing ways. Instead of allowing his star character to get by with this high-minded ideal, he begins to insert snippets of that college frat party into the movie. Just when you're beginning to come over to Sen. Hanson's side, Lurie drops in another grainy, smarmy montage. Though designed to fly by quickly, making it impossible for the audience to decide whether that's the senator or not, those titillating scenes don't fly by so rapidly that one doesn't notice the only fully nude form is the female's. The college boys may have their pants down, but their shirttails leave only their legs bare.

It's this thinly veiled titillation that trips up Lurie's high-minded political thriller. We're supposed to be upset at the double standard, outraged at the lengths people will go to stay in power. "The Contender" overflows with the huffing and puffing of equal-righteous indignation, but its tabloid soul keeps it from greatness.

Despite its hollow core, "The Contender" offers up more than a few outstanding performances. Allen makes us care about Laine Hanson long after Lurie has run out of ways to degrade her. Even Bridges gives an enjoyable though cynical performance. But the movie belongs to Oldman. His Runyon is the scariest kind of villain — one with both power and a microphone. We may feel for Allen's character, but Oldman's congressman is chillingly genuine.

I would be remiss not to give a shout-out to some local actors in "The Contender." First, she may only have two scenes, but Irene Ziegler creates a lasting impression as Runyon's wife. She gives as good as she gets, more than holding her own with both Oldman and Allen. I squealed with delight when Dawn Westbrook flounced through the door as the president's secretary; and I kept my fingers crossed that Bev Appleton would have a line or two as a fellow member on Runyon's Judiciary Committee. Toward the end of the hearings, he does. Filmed in and around Richmond and Petersburg, "The Contender" offers a different type of entertainment — spotting the hometown locations.

While "The Contender" made me angry because it could have been that rare movie — one that both entertains and enlightens, "Dr. T" just made me sad. The humor in Altman's latest comic fable is scattershot and erratic.

Neither the plot nor the characters ever quite reach that delicate balance between frivolousness and social commentary that Altman and writer Anne Rapp ("Cookie's Fortune") are aiming for. Of course, the maddening thing is that we know Altman is more than capable of finding that perfect pitch.

"Dr. T" is set in the lofty economic levels of Dallas' upper class, where men still hunt in the wild while their women stalk the latest trends in marble-floored malls. But Dr. Sullivan Travis is different. Just ask his long-suffering head nurse (Shelley Long) or any of the patients who resort to all sorts of chicanery as they stampede his office waiting for a chance to bask in his caring concern. He is beloved by all — including his about-to-be-wed daughter, Dee Dee (Kate Hudson); his conspiracy-minded younger daughter, Connie (Tara Reid); and his tipsy sister-in-law, Peggy (Laura Dern), who seems to view motherhood as just an advanced form of playing dress-up. Wife Kate's regression back to childhood seems to be the only outward manifestation that something's just not right.

But this Dallas is nowhere near "Nashville," Altman's 1975 undisputed masterpiece. If the brittle sadness of these women or the constant laughs at their expense aren't enough to send you over the edge, then just wait until the movie's climatic epiphany. Brimming with less-than-subtle symbolism and some pretty graphic shots of childbirth, one can't help but believe Dr. T loves women a lot more than Robert Altman does.

"The Contender" —

"Dr. T and the Women" —


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