Even Homer nods, of course, but Robert Altman, great filmmaker though he may be, seems to snooze his way entirely through every third picture or so. In his earlier days for every “Nashville” or “M*A*SH” we got a “Brewster McCloud” or “Popeye,” and more recently he’s given us “The Player” and “Short Cuts” but also “Pret-a-Porter.” Now he follows up the underrated “Gingerbread Man” and the jovial “Cookie’s Fortune” with an absolute mess about a Dallas gynecologist and the women who make his personal and professional life miserable despite his desire to please them all. The movie begins promisingly with an amusing conversation between an elderly patient and the doctor as he examines her, and goes on to one of the director’s patented complicated tracking shots as the camera pans back and forth among the women in his crowded waiting room while the credits roll; but then, unhappily, the plot kicks in and things go swiftly downhill. In spite of a script by Anne Rapp (who also wrote “Fortune”) and a formidable cast, “Dr. T and the Women” proves an almost total washout. It’s the sort of comedy that elicits more embarrassed coughs than laughs.

The fulcrum of the plot is Dr. Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere), Sully to his pals, whose unfailing grace and good humor keep his Dallas waiting room crowded with a bevy of well-coiffed, well-dressed women who seem to visit it daily. All the patients are enamoured of the doc–one played by Janine Turner, with whose husband Sully hunts and golfs, in particular–but he’s resolutely faithful to wife Kate (Farah Fawcett), who, unhappily, is suffering a mental breakdown which will eventually take her off to a hospital. The doc is also encumbered by the presence of his sister-in-law Peggy (Laura Dern), a tippler who’s descended on his home with her three young daughters, and he must further deal with his own children: Dee Dee (Kate Hudson), who’s both trying out for the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and planning her wedding although, as we learn, she has a special female friend named Marilyn (Liv Tyler); and Connie (Tara Reid), a tomboy type who works for the Kennedy Conspiracy Museum and worries that her sister is making a mistake by getting hitched. In obvious reaction to his trying home life, Sully enters an affair with Bree (Helen Hunt), a free-spirited golf pro, even though his head nurse Carolyn (Shelley Long) is clearly besotted with him and readily available.

What Rapp and Altman are clearly aiming at with this multi-character scenario is a kind of crazy romantic roundelay sending up the world of the colorfully pampered elite of Dallas while depicting, even if in an exaggerated fashion, the difficulties inherent in male-female relationships. Unhappily, the picture never catches the right rhythm and ends up seeming stilted, flaccid and sloppy instead of light and frothy. The outcome isn’t Gere’s fault: his restrained performance is actually one of his best, capturing the character’s vulnerability as well as his charm. But none of the women surrounding him are especially well realized. Fawcett is forced to play some embarrassing mad scenes, while Dern, Long and Turner are reduced to the most obvious cliches. Hudson’s dingbat daughter remains opaque throughout, and Reid manages to be mostly irritating. Even Hunt, as the most normal female in the bunch, never generates the degree of likability the script demands. Tyler, however, looks quite lovely in a thankless role. The other actresses populating the frame offer only the crudest caricatures of Texas high society.

“Dr. T and the Women” clearly has some of the complexity one expects in an Altman film, but none of the depth or resonance. By the time it crawls to an elaborate denouement marked by poor special effects and a sequence that fails to achieve the mythic quality that’s obviously intended (one is reminded of Fellini’s equally dispiriting “City of Women”), one can only lament that so talented a filmmaker has, once more, stumbled so badly.