by Jack Sommersby
What to do when a cinematic calamity misfires as consistently as this clunker does? Junk it.Beyond Therapy is so irredeemably awful that it's hard to believe it could possibly come from the very same Robert Altman who's given us the masterpieces M*A*S*H and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, semi-interesting successes The Long Goodbye and Nashville, and fascinating artistic failures Images, 3 Women and Quintet. Then again, this supremely gifted writer/director has been slipping these last several years, with the attempted suburban satire O.C. and Stiggs one of the most unwatchable movies ever made; and his last two adaptations of stage plays, Fool For Love and Streamers, lacked true directorial expressiveness. Beyond Therapy is from Christopher Durang's play, and Altman has paired with him in collaborating on the screenplay, and the result is crushingly unfunny. Its subject is psychiatry, not a particularly amusing subject (as Marshall Brickman's 1982 so-so Lovesick helped validate), and the setting is New York City, though not a single exterior shot rings true, with the main reason that the movie was not shot there, but in Paris, where Altman has taken up residence, with one of the main locales a French restaurant. Two people answering a singles ad, Bruce (Jeff Goldblum) and Prudence (Julie Hagerty), meet up in this eatery while the place isn't bustling with business; right away we see that the uncouthly brazen Bruce, who has no profession, and the prudish Prudence, an introvert who writes for People magazine, are a match made in Hell -- he comes on way too strong, and then doesn't help his case any by admitting his bisexuality and living arrangement with his sometimes male lover, Bob (Christopher Guest). Also in the place is an agitated waiter who makes a frantic call to his psychiatrist, Charlotte (Glenda Jackson), who we find out later is also Bruce's doctor; and at a table on the upper floor is a group of older ladies, one of whom is Bob's mother, who's aghast at watching Bruce make the moves on a woman, with Bruce unaware of her presence. This is in the first twelve minutes, and already we're put off by the cluttered staging and obnoxious attempts at eccentric "naturalness" that Altman has striven for with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Rather than enticing in a goofy kind of way, it's repellent. And we've got seventy-eight more tortuous minutes to go, alas.
Prudence, an ultra-neurotic, is also seeing a shrink, Stuart (Tom Conti), who talks with a fraudulent Freud-like accent, which is meant to be a laugh riot and isn't, and whose business office is right next to Charlotte's, which is the case so Altman can cut back and forth between the sessions as they're happening simultaneously, which he does with very little deftness and fluidity. Prudence has recently broken off an affair with an enraged Stuart, who's a premature ejaculator and partakes in "quickies" with Charlotte during intervals in a small room adjoining the offices. Charlotte is in fact the waiter's mother and is as emotionally off-balance as him, going from slow burns to shrill rants to the point where Bruce actually comes off as the most sensible of the two during their unproductive chats. Obviously, Durang is trying to make a satiric point that shrinks are as screwed up as their patients, if not more, and it's tired stuff with not a single amusing observation derived from it. As is a long dreadful scene in the two-story apartment that Bruce and Bob share where Prudence shows up for dinner not knowing that Bob will be staying downstairs in plain view while the two have dinner, with Bob's mother eventually making an entrance and again being aghast at Bruce. There's wretched dialogue inferior even to the scribbling in a Times Square mens-room stall, like when Bob's asked if he was allowed dolls to play with as a child and replies, "It was nuclear weapons I wasn't allowed to play with." The actors are of no help. Goldblum and Hagerty are utterly without charm or sex appeal; Jackson (with a horrendous hairstyle) and Conti (playing a jerk like a jerk) overact; Guest, in a humiliating role, tries his best but is doomed from the start. But it's Altman who was partly responsible for the screenplay and shaping the performances, and fully responsible for approving the unbelievably mucky lighting, for orchestrating the shoddy camerawork that's forever zooming in and out while never attaining any visual-narrative rhythm. Nothing goes right in Beyond Therapy, and it can't be defended as an artistic miscalculation because there isn't anything seriously artistic about it -- it's like an Edsel spewing fumes in your face without a moment's respite. Maybe the Devil made Altman do it.The good folks at Anchor Bay Entertainment have given the DVD good video and audio quality, but if you're in want of special features, you'll have to look elsewhere (unless, of course, you still consider a theatrical trailer one).
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originally posted: 04/28/12 11:41:07