By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 13, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

At the average Richard Gere movie (and average would be a polite word to describe a lot of them), I can generally think of three or four actors who might have played his role more vividly — brought it the glints of dynamism and fire that Gere, with his perpetually unruffled, blithe-mannequin competence, just doesn’t have in him. But I’m not sure if there’s an actor on the planet who would have been more perfectly cast than Gere as Dr. Sullivan Travis, the smooth, sweetly flirtatious, feel-good gynecologist at the center of Dr. T and the Women, Robert Altman’s mellow yet sneaky new ensemble movie.

Travis, known as Dr. T, is a fabled fixture of upper-class Dallas. In his waiting room, the women gather, speaking in a frenzied hubbub, as if they were about to receive some heavenly elixir. In a sense, they are — it’s the sympathetic attention that no one but Dr. T will give them. At first, Dr. T and the Women threatens to slip into a kind of genial tastelessness, and even Altman’s fabled overlapping dialogue seems off; it’s so blurry this time that we can barely make out the aural snippets of backbiting and gossip. Yet the movie reveals a clever and humane design. Gere’s Dr. T is a man who reveres women both too much and not enough. He loves them, but he doesn’t completely see them, and Gere, with his gaze of adoration that’s turned half inward, gives a rare performance that’s not just ”charming” but graced with modesty; he creates a character who’s like a befuddled prisoner in his own palace.

At home, Travis’ life is spinning out of control. Farrah Fawcett, regal in her distress, is Dr. T’s wife, a beautiful aristo headcase who acts out her lack of fulfillment by shedding her clothes in public and regressing to prepubescence (she spends most of the film in a mental ward). One of his daughters, an aspiring Dallas Cowboys cheerleader (Kate Hudson), is about to get married, but her true affections are elsewhere (to say the least), and so are those of her distracted relatives — her frazzled alcoholic aunt (Laura Dern) and her younger sister, a punky JFK-assassination buff (Tara Reid) who conducts amusingly allusive theme-park tours of Dealey Plaza.

Altman surveys the patriarchal demimonde of Dallas much as Tom Wolfe did Atlanta in that teeming wide-screen canvas of a novel, A Man in Full: as a crazy-quilt clash of old and new values. This may be the last place in America where feminism and chivalry could still be duking it out. Dr. T, as Gere plays him, is a kind of tender-hearted gigolo of domestic empathy, and when he slips into an affair with a retired golf pro (Helen Hunt), a postfeminist beauty who loves men without needing them, he scarcely knows what hit him. Dr. T and the Women lacks the resonance of a major Altman film (and the grandiose ending is a bit of a stretch), but it’s a funny and ebullient look at a man in full confusion. B+

Dr. T & the Women

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