In all likelihood, "Dr. T and the Women" will come to be regarded as little more than an amusing trifle in the oeuvre of Robert Altman, who at age 75 is one of the few elder-statesmen American directors still willing and able to make movies that matter.
Altman's tale of the woes befalling a Dallas gynecologist (Richard Gere) is not nearly as provocative or accomplished as his early-'90s efforts "The Player" and "Short Cuts." Nor is it as edgy as "M*A*S*H, " "Nashville" and the other risk-taking movies that cemented the filmmaker's reputation as a leading light of the now-faded Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s.
Instead, "Dr. T and the Women" is a pleasant diversion, a seriocomic lark in the mold of last year's Cookie's Fortune. Both were penned by screenwriter Anne Rapp -- a native Texan -- and each has a small-town, closed-circle feel, even though the new film is set in the suburbs of a metropolis.
Altman, as usual, drops his protagonist into a maelstrom of frenzied activity. Dr. Sully Travis (Gere) is first seen making small talk with an older patient as he performs a gynecological procedure. Soon after, we get a more expansive view of this physician's world (in a sequence set to the jaunty, bouncing sound of Lyle Lovett's "Large Band"): His waiting room is a high-society party waiting to happen, packed to the brim with chattering receptionists, nurses and patients of all shapes, sizes, ages and shades of hair color.
The ladies who pay Travis's bills -- and stay fiercely loyal to their man -- busily greet one another with air kisses, jockeying for position on the appointment list and exiting their examinations in states of satisfied grace. (The scene is somewhat reminiscent of an old "Saturday Night Live" sketch starring Mel Gibson.) Southern accents and gossipy exchanges are in the air, and bits and pieces of conversation swirl in and out of earshot, as in the Altman pictures of yore.
Some observers might accuse Altman of being patronizing or condescending toward these women. But it would be just as easy to argue that the director, like the titular doctor, is in love with every variety of the female gender: The camera and the script offer a loving regard for even the quirkiest characters. Thanks to his job and resultant social status, Travis is the envy of his duck-hunting pals (Robert Hays, Matt Malloy and former Conan O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter) and acquaintances alike. "What kind of doctor is he?" willowy, blonde Bree (Helen Hunt), the new golf pro in town, asks an employee at Travis's country club. "He's the lucky kind," she's told.
The good doctor's fortunes, though, seem to be on the wane, thanks to a sudden confluence of crises. His beloved wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett), suffers a break with reality, gleefully disrobing to play in a water fountain at a shopping mall and regressing to a childlike state until she's reluctantly taken to a mental hospital.
In the midst of a divorce, Travis's chatty, champagne-loving sister-in-law Peggy (a terrific Laura Dern), decides to move into his home, with her three bratty tykes in tow. His daughter Connie (Tara Reid), on staff at a museum dedicated to JFK conspiracy theories, is paranoid that the wedding of her sister Dee Dee (Kate Hudson) may be wrecked by the arrival of a mysterious old friend (Liv Tyler). Dr. T's hard-working office manager, Carolyn (Shelley Long, admirably wacky), seems inordinately interested in her boss's private life. And to top it off, there's a twister-spawning storm on the horizon -- a physical manifestation of all the emotional turmoil.
By rights, "Dr. T," should run on its own fuel, as the best of Altman's ensemble pieces have done: Simply gather these actors together, encourage script improvisation and watch what happens. That works to some degree here. The characters, though, including love interest Bree, aren't as fully fleshed out as they ought to be, and Gere and Hunt demonstrate little onscreen chemistry. A bit of natural magic is inserted toward the end of the film, but it leads to an unsatisfying payoff that undercuts the movie's considerable charms.