Published Sep 01, 2000The common theory about the quality of Robert Altman's movies is that he does one great one, then a total dud. For every Nashville or Short Cuts, there's an O. C. and Stiggs or a Ready to Wear. At this point in his career, the duds may be outnumbering the gems, but he's made up for it with his new film Dr. T and the Women, a comedy that defied my preconceptions at every turn. Richard Gere stars as a handsome, supremely confident gynecologist named Sully Travis (his eager patients call him Dr. T), and the first surprise is that he's not a womanizer. His problems with women are masked by a kindly bedside manner (the stirrups on his examination tables are fur-covered), and a smugness that lurks beneath his apparent understanding. His delusions first begin to unravel when his wife Kate (Farrah Fawcett) has a mental breakdown and does an impromptu striptease in a shopping mall fountain. It turns out she's got a "Hestia" complex æ a mental disorder that makes her increasingly infantile and causes her to recoil from her husband's sexual advances. Dr. T explains all of this to his daughters by telling them that Kate's aberrant behavior is the ironic result of being "too fulfilled" in every aspect of her life. Gere plays this scene with a weird sort of deluded sensitivity that underlines the subtle message of the film. In the post-feminist world, most men believe that they have an enlightened understanding of women, when in fact, the demeaning condescension has just been buried beneath a more evolved façade. Dr. T's world constantly disabuses him of his preconceived notions of the feminine. His daughter Dee Dee (Kate Hudson) is trying out to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, and is engaged to be married, but her eye may be on the maid of honour (Liv Tyler). He also starts up an affair with a local golf pro (Helen Hunt), and this relationship confounds all of his instincts because she's too independent-minded to need him as desperately as he wants to be needed. All of the pressures on Dr. T's manhood reach a fever pitch in the last act when all of the heavily metaphoric imagery of sprinklers and rainstorms reach their logical conclusion, leading to a gutsy deus ex machina ending that's sure to leave audiences divided. I've seen more than a few critics throw up their hands and claim that Dr. T and the Women isn't really about anything, but in fact this is one of Altman's most dense and layered efforts.