If you've ever had to support an acting friend by going to watch them in a "showcase," one of those horrible events where a group of actors combine their hopes and dreams with short scenes from plays and movies in the hopes that they will get an agent, so that they can never again do another showcase, then you already know bits and pieces of Beyond Therapy. While Christopher Durang is certainly a respectable writer, with a catalog full of delightful plays, his work has also become a cherry-picked wasteland wherein all the good bits have been theatrically destroyed by people who should have learned to do something valuable, like repair air conditioners. In addition to the list of individuals who have done their level best to ensure that the name of Durang brings up memories of a terrible night out, one individual might be someone you'd recognize--and it is Robert Altman.
The 80's didn't start off well for Altman--besides coming out with Popeye, which is the sort of movie that puts to the lie the myth that Robin Williams only just recently become annoying, he also put out Health, a not-so-bad movie that no one saw, and is nowadays only talked about so that people can say they don't really hate it, as if that is somehow an appetizing feeling to have about a film. While he was able to get back on the horse, so to say, with Streamers and Secret Honor, the truth about 80's Altman is that he embraced the safety found in adapting successful plays without changing much of what made them successful--as good as Secret Honor is, and yes, it is incredible, much of what Altman did was stay out of the way of what Philip Baker Hall, Arnold Stone and David Freed had already worked out on the stage--the camera work and the choices that Altman made, while exceptional, aren't at all what makes Secret Honor such an excellent film. The credit for that, as even Altman himself admitted, goes to the writing and the performance.
If only the same could be said for Beyond Therapy. Hell, it would be nice if anything positive could be said about Beyond Therapy. Whether it was a lack of faith in the material, or the rampaging ego of a director on leave from his country of origin, Altman's rewriting of Durang's play is a bewildering act by a man who didn't, in 1987, really have much less to lose. As even Durang points out, from the first minutes of the film, this is not the story he'd seen such success with on Broadway:
...the movie lost me when Jeff Goldblum started sucking Julie Hagerty’s toes in the restaurant in the first five minutes. Unpleasant, unlikely to do in a restaurant, and the action told you that you were in a fake world.
As the quote has already made clear, it wasn't just bad writing that makes Beyond Therapy such a difficult film to watch, much less enjoy--it also suffers from one of those casting choices that makes so little sense that it almost seems relevant to question Robert Altman's sanity. Julie Fucking Hagerty? Julie, I'm the woman from fucking Airplane, Hagerty? Putting her in a leading role in a luncheon meat commercial would make sense, she probably couldn't screw that up, but to throw her into a tightly wound play where her character has to start at intelligent so that the hysterical neuroses of her personality don't ring false? It's no wonder that the movie falls apart, completely, from the beginning onward. The viewers are first introduced to her as she tries to exit the subway--and Jules can't even make it up the stairs. It's not a joke, or a defining moment, or anything else. She's just so fucking dumb that she can't handle stairs.
After the movie makes it's way out of the immediately tiresome and completely insipid blind date sequence, wherein, yes, Jeff Goldblum sucks on Hagerty's toes, it dives wholesale into scenes of their individual moments with their therapists, and any hopes that the movie can be redeemed become dead on the wire--nothing, not even the tremendous Glenda Jackson, can overcome what's happened to the script. Whereas part of why Durang's found such success with Therapy was to unify an honest portrayal of what neurotic narcissists talk about in private sessions with therapists they're also sleeping with, Altman ensures that none of this will carry over, by writing the dialog in such a way that everything and anything will be played to the most garish extremes possible. He treats each and every therapy scene as if, were the film any longer than ninety minutes, clowns would come into the room and eat paper airplanes. Worser still, every conversation, from this portion of the movie for the next hour operates under the same crescendo, the same arc--it's all quiet statement of weird thing, additional quiet weird response, continue, and then screeching. Every scene operates like this--it's all the same thematic "volume" for lack of a more descriptive term. It's a deafening experience that no amount of mugging from Christopher Guest can redeem--not that Guest doesn't try extraordinarily hard, basically latching on to the most typical flamboyant tics that would eventually spawn his turn in Waiting For Guffman. For all the complaints leveled at the portrayal of homosexual men that Hollywood produces, a film like Beyond Therapy makes Wild Hogs or that Adam Sandler thing look like nuanced studies in gender roles by comparison.
Beyond Therapy, as loud and obnoxious as it is, is also one of the most excruciatingly boring films Robert Altman ever made, and although the climactic scene--a ridiculous, slow-motion sequence where one of the characters pretends to shoot up a restaurant--is nothing like anything else in the movie, not the least of which is because it's in slow-motion and seems to have some actual acts of cinematography being performed, still drags on just as long as the rest of the film has, and any excitement that "maybe this is going to be worth the time it took to watch it" expires as the credits roll, which is also when, bewilderingly, Altman feels the need to pull the camera back enough to clue the viewer in that, while the story is set in New York, they've been in Paris all along! It doesn't add anything to the story, and it isn't that interesting, so the response ends up eliciting a "Where's my goddamn copy of Mash" through gritted teeth.
-Tucker Stone, 2008
Who's up next for a two part good movie/bad movie? Bergman, motherfuckers. Motherfucking Ingmar Bergman.