Sunday, April 5, 2009

Beyond Therapy (1987, Robert Altman)



Comedies about psychiatry often betray the mores of the period in which they were made. Robert Altman in the 80s existed so surreptitiously under the radar that his work sometimes betrays a boredom with his own talent, with exceptional gems like the Philip Seymour Hoffman monologue film Secret Honor (1984.) Beyond Therapy is also based on a play, one with multiple sets unlike the former. The New York aesthetic is present in the location shots and set designs of apartments and restaurants, and without any realism. Altman's view of New York is the caricaturist's, skipping from one background character tangent to another and weaving stories in and out.

The casting and their direction is typically excellent per Altman. Each of the leads is talented - Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Guest, Julie Hagerty - although Hagerty is so broad its like she's playing an improvised scene for 90 minutes while Goldblum and Guest create funny characters with depth. The supporting cast of family members and psychiatrists is totally ridiculous and almost entirely French. Lots of accents flying fast and thick, as though there was nothing strange about these American characters existing solely in some alternate Parisian universe version of New York.

There's a lot of references to homosexuality. Golblum's character is bi, yet conservatively does not get explicit with anyone, even Hagerty. She announces her hatred of gays clearly, loudly and early in the film and then the script doesn't even emphasize her later acceptance of Guest. The homosexual waiters and patrons of the restaurant at the center of the action are what Burroughs would call "simpering."

The psychiatrists and their relation to the main characters is nearly superfluous. Unlike Three On A Couch the idea of psychiatry itself isn't the joke anymore, there's more an assertion that the profession isn't effective enough to be taken seriously. Hence Goldblum's shrink being a caricature of psychobabblers and Hagerty's a sexually hung up loser who's already slept with her. When she and he stand around arguing about the importance of their affair as though this could happen in real life, there's a slightly patronizing sheen of artifice present which can only come from the self-considered urbane.

Altman can be really brilliant or he can be just fucking around. Thankfully he's talented enough that merely fucking around can be an entertaining light comedy, never laugh out loud funny but dripping a steady tap of quirkiness. Lesser hands attempt the same every week and fail, whereas I could pretty much watch Jeff Goldblum and/or Christopher Guest in anything. A lot better than its contemporaries and the modern "romantic comedy." Altman's often wandering, kaleidoscopic style is similar to Europeans, so the mood is cohesive.

As light wittiness this is hard to fault. The only annoyance is being patronized by the hyper-verbose neurosis play dialogue which appeals to intellectual narcissism. And again, Goldblum and Guest excel.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

I thought it was a lot better than you did. It's one of my favorite obscure movies, and one of Altman's funniest.

The point of the movie really couldn't be any clearer--everybody, including the therapists, is so screwed up that the idea of therapy is laughable.

And the movie is laughable.

Unknown said...

I thought it was a lot better than you did. It's one of my favorite obscure movies, and one of Altman's funniest.

The point of the movie really couldn't be any clearer--everybody, including the therapists, is so screwed up that the idea of therapy is laughable.

And the movie is laughable.