Somewhere inside Dr. T and the Women, a gentle new social satire from director Robert Altman, there’s an engaging character study of a fundamentally nice man drowning in a sea of women. It’s just very hard to find amid the clutter of Altman’s idiosyncrasies. Everything we’ve come to expect from this misanthropic auteur is here: overlapping dialogue, wandering cameras, one overlong tracking shot, and constant improvisation by a cast too large to be contained by one movie. Trouble is, Altman isn’t good at making silly films (see Pret a Porter if you have any doubt). Dr. T and the Women deals with light, airy subjects best treated with deft observational humor, not the thoughtful, symbolic importance with which Altman gifts every subject he tackles. As in so many of the hysterical outfits worn by Dr. T’s patients, everything clashes. Dr. Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere), a gynecologist serving Dallas matrons and debutantes alike, loves and worships women; he even names his gun after one. And the women in his life are a handful: His wife (Farrah Fawcett) is regressing to mental prepubescence, because there are no challenges left in her completely fulfilled life; his office manager (Shelley Long) isn’t very good at her job, causing near-constant confusion at work; his sister-in-law (Laura Dern) is a high-strung drunk; one of his daughters (Kate Hudson) is a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader (’nuff said) and the other (Tara Reid) a petty meddler. All of these women need Dr. T, and he needs to be their savior. We discover that he actually thinks too highly of women; to the good doctor, they’re not so much people as behavioral-science experiments. That’s why he’s so befuddled by Bree (Helen Hunt), a golf pro who doesn’t need any saving whatsoever. Like Warren Beatty’s shopkeeper in Altman’s classic McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Dr. T can’t comprehend women who can get along without him. As his life spins out of control, Dr. T becomes increasingly drawn to the only woman who doesn’t fit his preconceptions. If only Altman were as comfortable with new things: As he gets older, the 75-year-old director seems less eager to climb on his soapbox. He lets the puffed-up denizens of upper-class Dallas off quite lightly, in fact; he’s interested only in gently poking at a few obvious foibles. And that’s where he fails: His script is so light, and its problems so tedious, that there’s never really anything at stake. It’s nothing more than amusing, and after yet another drunken rant by Dern, it’s not even very amusing. The trouble comes when Altman tries to mesh his indulgent style with light satire. The improvised dialogue he so loves becomes oppressive when the characters warble on about nothing. When Altman is behind the camera, he likes surprises as well, with meandering shots that keep our attention much better than the story. Altman’s style has its place, as in a sexily quiet seduction scene between Gere and Hunt set to Lyle Lovett (who also wrote the quirky score) and ending with a shot of slick voyeurism. Too often, however, we’re treated to two lamebrained actresses like Hudson and Reid making up a phone conversation. It makes a pap smear sound fun. The biggest shame is that Gere looks very good under Altman’s control. After a career of Keanu-esque detachment with occasional flashes of talent, Gere actually seems like a real person here. He’s a bit of a smoothie, but still a fundamentally nice guy who sees all the troubles in the world heaped upon him. Gere bears up with a smile, even while every actress in the film prattles on as if they were being paid by the word. They say this film is a take on the story of Job, who eventually learned that life is not a puzzle to be solved, but a riddle to be pondered. Ah, but there’s a danger in pondering: If you do it too long, your ass goes numb.
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