Beyond Therapy is bad. And I don’t mean that it’s a weaker Robert Altman effort or that it’s bad of kind. I mean to say that it’s a bad movie that I could scarcely dislike more even if it had been written and directed by Henry Jaglom, a major/minor talent I love and cherish as much as I do getting paper cuts on my balls. Whatever pleasant vibes may radiate off of the film’s innocuous and airy promotional artwork that hints at a comedy of manners among a star-studded cast is a goddamn pack of rotten lies.
The last in Altman’s feature adaptations of stage plays, Beyond Therapy is a story about, I think, sexual fluidity, self-acceptance, and the (disproven) utter worthlessness of therapy. I say “I think” not because I don’t know; it’s just that Altman’s busy style and overlapping dialogue does a grave disservice to the film and it barely registers as anything other than a cacophonous vortex of shouting, goofy accents, performative emoting, and Julie Hagerty.
Disguising itself as a polyamorous and pansexual Woody Allen comedy, Robert Altman’s Beyond Therapy avoids amusing like the plague in favor of buying unfunny by the barrel and spraying the whole movie with it. Adapted from co-writer Christopher Durang’s off-Broadway play, Beyond Therapy concerns itself with Bruce (Jeff Goldblum) a bisexual who meets Prudence (Julie Hagerty) after she answers a magazine ad Bruce has placed much to the chagrin of his live-in boyfriend, Bob (Christopher Guest) and his mother (Geneviève Page). Most of this chaos plays out in a French restaurant in which mirrored deceptions and partner swapping seems to be happening on the margins and also in the offices of Charlotte (Glenda Jackson) and Stuart (Tom Conti), two therapists who treat Bruce and Prudence, respectively, and, coincidentally, sneak off to have sex with each other at twenty after the hour.
Beyond Therapy feels like it’s being helpful as this kind of subject matter (in America, at least) was something that, in 1987, was still mostly assigned to very serious dramas and was considered pretty provocative but, alas, it’s ultimately too confused to work retrospectively. I mean, the idea that Jeff Goldblum’s fluidity somehow throws the world off of its sexual axis is borderline insulting, even for a farce such as this. In fact, this is a film in which the whole idea of bisexuality is a foreign one; as if it resides in a world governed by its extremes. If it’s trying to state the fact that most everyone lies somewhere between the polar extremes on the sexual spectrum (which in 1987 would have been classified more as an “argument”), it’s not doing it in a particularly good or charming way. And where the film ends on a positive and healthy note where everyone more or less celebrates their most honest and open sexual desires replete with straight and gay couplings (and at least one ménage a trois), Altman wheezes his way to the finish line feeling far too out of shape to even attempt to get into the mix, let alone direct it.
One of the problems with Beyond Therapy is the film’s frenetic pace which flattens out any real enjoyment of it. The cramped set of the French restaurant overstuffed with peripheral characters feels so constricted that Altman’s usually graceful choreography is off by two beats as visual gags don’t register and anything that might come off as clever is completely crushed and has the life choked out of it. Altman loved the French and it’s not difficult to understand why given their undying love for him and his work. But his comedies with French twists feel cold in a way that, if you’re not on Altman’s specific wavelength about the French and French culture, it’ll all seem like inside baseball and hard to gauge. What I do know is that much of it is not funny. And, on the whole, Beyond Therapy feels more like a French farce about sexually neurotic New Yorkers than it does an American film dealing with sexual hang-ups. I guess that tracks since this film was shot in Paris masquerading as New York.
This is a situation in which I think 90% of the cast is wonderful, just not when they’re occupying the same screen space with this material. Jeff Goldblum is very good as he delivers his usual dexterous brand of frazzle but Christopher Guest is utterly wonderful, providing the prototype for Zack Galifianakis’s twin brother Seth from Between Two Ferns. Julie Hagerty, on the other hand, is a ball of nervous energy who, despite being incredible in Lost in America and Airplane, is forced to play a character who is mostly shrill, unappealing, and doesn’t get enough water thrown on her during the course of the film. Glenda Jackson is great but she’s lost in the material which does her a great disservice, and Tom Conti is mildly amusing as the malapropism-prone therapist who actually revels in his tendency to ejaculate prematurely and who feels that sex that lasts longer than five minutes is unnatural.
If not for his bit in the opera-omnibus Aria (which, frankly, is just ok), 1987 would have represented Altman’s career nadir. He retreated back into the world of television and would not be seen in the cinemas again for another five years. Of course, he would continue to deliver masterworks on the small screen and his comeback in the multiplexes would prove to be one of the most confounding, against-the-odds stories in Hollywood history. But those triumphs should be shared for another day and should get no closer than five thousand yards of Beyond Therapy, a film only preferable to A Perfect Couple due to the sense that, at the conclusion of the former, everyone is moving in a healthier direction and is doing so with a complete lack of live performances from Keepin’ ‘Em Off the Streets.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain