& & by Ed Symkus & & & &

Altman. A simple name, quite common, plenty of them in any phone book. Probably translates into "old man " from some European language or other. But when you tack a word onto either end of it, so it comes out "an Altman film, " ahhh, there's the difference. There's simply no one else out there who makes a film even slightly similar in style or substance to the ones Robert Altman makes.

He didn't invent the idea of ensemble acting, but hell, he might as well have. Nashville still remains one of the classic ensemble pieces of all time. And other directors have used the gimmick of many people talking at once, but the way he does it -- think back as far as M*A*S*H for some perspective here -- it's not a gimmick; it's a way of filmmaking life.

So here we have his newest, Dr. T and the Women, with, for its ensemble, 13 major parts and scads of smaller ones, including probably the youngest person ever to grace a screen. And not two minutes into the film, just after an outrageously brazen, but very funny, opening sequence of a gynecological examination, Altman's camera is desperately panning back and forth between a gaggle of frustrated women in the doctor's waiting room all talking at once, trying to figure out who to focus on. The cacophonous dialogue is impossible to understand; the effect is hilarious.

As is a good deal of the rest of this breezy film. The man of the title is Dallas-based Dr. Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere) -- Sully to his pals with whom he golfs and hunts, but Dr. T to the upper-class hordes of women, both young and old, who flock to his gynecological practice, quite often with no problems other than an emotional urge to see the good doctor.

One guy and a whole lot of women, but they're just part of his job. He's totally loyal to his wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett), beautiful and loyal in her own right, but acting a little weird of late, rambling around, seemingly lost in thought, but more likely just lost, taking off her shoes (and other things) at all the wrong times.

Being a man of medicine, Dr. T knows there's something wrong here, and has her looked at, only to find that her condition is supposedly his fault: He loves her too much (don't worry, it's all explained), he's told, and she's institutionalized. At about the same time, too bad for all involved, he also first sets eyes upon Bree (Helen Hunt), the new assistant golf pro at his club, and suddenly it's not just his unfortunate wife that he's thinking about. Bree is the one to whom Dr. T candidly admits, "Every single woman I've met has something special about her. "

Yet, due to the sharp script by Anne Rapp, who also wrote Altman's Cookie's Fortune, we never feel that Dr. T is a cad. Besides being a respectful, concerned, dedicated doctor, he comes off, at least in this relationship, as a really confused man, who can't figure out what he's done wrong or how he's gotten into this predicament. And he's hopelessly, quite romantically and humorously, caught up in it.

What keeps the film so entertaining, besides Gere's winning performance, is that while the Dr. T and Bree relationship remains at the center, there's a dizzying array of other situations spinning all around it.

There's the upcoming wedding of one of his daughters (it figures that he was "blessed " only with daughters, as well as his constant dealing with both of those offspring, played by Tara Reid and Kate Hudson, each one as different as they can be from each other. There's the fact that, for reasons that won't be revealed here, this wedding thing might not be a very good idea. There are his three golfing-hunting pals (Robert Hays, Matt Malloy and fresh from Conan's side, Andy Richter), who just don't understand the women in their lives and depend on Sully for his insight. And there's his office, always a scene of pandemonium, always behind in appointments, always kept somewhat in order by the doc's trusty assistant, Carolyn (Shelley Long, who's terrific in some of the film's broadest comic scenes).

Although a story, for what it's worth, is sort of paid attention to, stories are not what Altman films are all about. They rely on mood and character more than anything else, and there's plenty of both here. The film's last few minutes offer up one of the weirdest, out-of-the-blue endings seen in a long, long time, including the bizarro end credits sequence that caps even Altman's own Brewster McCloud.

Thank goodness there's no one else making the kind of films Altman makes. No one else would get it right.

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