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Altman's 'Dr. T' satisfies with unpredictable twists

Robert Altman is one of the rare filmmakers who wants to entertain his audience and experiment with cinema while he's at it.

His new picture, "Dr. T & the Women," has more than enough Hollywood-type ingredients to satisfy the average Saturday-night audience: varied characters, unpredictable twists, sensational acting by Richard Gere, and a climax surprising enough to raise the roof. At the same time, it sports Altman's trademarked idiosyncrasies, including a meandering pace and a refusal to follow the usual storytelling rules. It may aggravate as many moviegoers as it pleases, but it's likely to live in memory longer than most of the well-behaved fare seen in recent months.

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Gere plays a Dallas doctor whose professional and personal interests revolve around women. He's genuinely devoted to their welfare, but they seem determined to raise new challenges for him every time he thinks he's figured them out. His patients come up with new complaints for him to cure. His nurse is torn between assisting him and seducing him. His wife has developed major psychological problems. And his marriage-bound daughter is concerned about a secret in her past.

All his skills - as physician, father, friend, and spouse - are being stretched to their limits by distractions and demands. Can he cope? Or will something have to give, adding more complications for himself and his loved ones?

The movie gets much of its emotional interest from Gere's fine performance, which balances outgoing charm and inward-looking thoughtfulness with finely tuned finesse. Another round of applause goes to the amazingly strong supporting cast, from Farrah Fawcett as the wife and Laura Dern as her sister to Kate Hudson as the doctor's daughter and Liv Tyler as an enigmatic wedding guest. Shelley Long, an actress we haven't seen often enough lately, is especially spirited as the nurse.

But this is an Altman picture, so it inevitably derives much of its personality from the director's own temperament. True to his best tradition, it combines an improvisational atmosphere with a technically astute style that weaves every cinematic element - dialogue, gesture, color, camera work, and so on - into a sensitively designed tapestry that's transfixing to watch.

Altman's fortunes have undergone more ups and downs than most, from the glory days of "M*A*S*H" and "Nashville" to a long drought in the '80s, but this shaggy-dog yarn continues the comeback he's been enjoying since "The Player" relaunched his career in 1992.

None of which means "Dr. T" is for all tastes. Some will dislike its rambling screenplay, written by Anne Rapp, who penned "Cookie's Fortune" for Altman last year. Some will also squirm at its restless camera work, and others may find its finale - suggesting that men need extra affection in what's becoming a woman's world - is too postfeminist for comfort.

But such responses will make the movie's arrival all the more lively. Let the controversies commence!

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Rated R; contains vulgarity and sexual material.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society