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One Flew Over the Butcher Shop: Altman’s Klutzy Crafting of “Beyond Therapy” (1987) | Blu-ray Review

The 1980s were a difficult period for Robert Altman, stumbling into the decade with two high profile projects, HealtH and Popeye, both poorly received. Although several titles from this era are worthy of reconsideration and/or are among some of his best (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean and Fool for Love), time has not been kind to all of them. Perhaps chief amongst these is his 1987 comedic failing Beyond Therapy, based on Christopher Durang’s (who co-wrote the script) Broadway play.

Featuring Altman’s usual predilections and shot in Paris despite being set in New York, it’s an odd mix of sexual identity politics and slapstick comedy (think Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday) but with jarring tonal shifts, ungainly editing and two highly unlikeable lead performances. Add to this the film’s neglect to incorporate any mention of the AIDs crises (Durang’s original was written in 1981) and the stage is set for a strangely conceived remnant which seems to hail from a parallel universe.

Prudence (Julie Hagerty) and Bruce (Jeff Goldblum) are two neurotic New Yorkers who meet through the personal ads, setting a blind date at a French restaurant. However, Bruce, who is prone to crying, is currently living with his boyfriend Bob (Christopher Guest), whose mother Zizi (Genevieve Page) happens to be eating at the same restaurant. Prudence despises homosexuals and men who cry, so the date doesn’t end well. Both of them retreat to their therapists for respite, but Prudence is seeing Stuart (Tom Conti), with whom she used to be romantically involved, while Bruce’s therapist Charlotte (Glenda Jackson) is perhaps more neurotic than everyone else, suffering from frequent bouts of word salad. Eventually, Prudence and Bruce meet again, responding to a different personal ad, and decide to forge a romantic connection, much to the chagrin of Bob.

Altman’s sense of humor doesn’t always translate to the careful intricacy required by something which should seem as effervescent as slapstick, which is apparent in his direction of Jeff Goldblum’s bisexual Bruce and Julie Hagerty’s passive and vulnerable ditz Prudence, tonally at odds with one another. It’s perhaps important to note Prudence was originated Off-Broadway by Durang’s pal Sigourney Weaver and went on to be inhabited by Dianne Wiest and Catherine O’Hara, while Bruce was played by Stephen Elliott, John Lithgow and David Hyde Pierce.

The supporting players fare a bit better, including Tom Conti, Glenda Jackson (whose two pairings with Altman seemed ill-fated, including HealtH) and scene stealers Christopher Guest and Genevieve Page as his (very) French mother. Even without the specter of AIDs in the mid-1980s, Beyond Therapy is perhaps Altman’s most clueless and haphazard depictions of the LGBTQ+ community, especially considering a number of trailblazing examples, including the trans woman played by Karen Black in Come Back…, the lesbian couple in A Perfect Couple and Mitchell Lichtenstein in Streamers.

Ultimately, Beyond Therapy ends up being a tiresome slog, cutting inherently between various ‘therapy’ sessions between Conti and Hagerty, Jackson and Guest/Goldblum with no real rhyme or reason, while the goofy roundelays in the French restaurant never sizzle with the zany energy from Durang’s original play.

Film Rating: ★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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