Dir: Robert Altman. US. 2000. 120 mins.

Prod co: Sandcastle 5. Int'l sales: Initial Entertainment Group (1) 310 315 1722. Prod: Robert Altman, James McLindon. Scr: Anne Rapp. DoP: Jan Kiesser. Prod des: Stephen Altman. Editor: Geraldine Peroni. Music: Lyle Lovett. Main cast: Richard Gere, Helen Hunt, Farrah Fawcett, Laura Dern, Shelley Long, Tara Reid, Kate Hudson, Liv Tyler.

At Venice, the pre-screening conviction was that Altman's new film would be an inoffensive Texan comedy along the lines of Cookie's Fortune. The setting is certainly Texan: specifically, the shopping malls, golf greens and cutesy haut-bourgeois villas of Dallas. And it is undeniably a comedy. But inoffensive is not an adjective that sits well with this film, which is one of the strangest and, in one way, most extreme of Altman's satires of contemporary America. The ending, in particular - which the director has forbidden reviewers to reveal, on pain, one presumes, of a Lone Star fatwah - takes the breathe away, and violates (though not quite for the first time) a long-standing cinematic taboo.

Casting Richard Gere as gynaecologist Dr T is, of course, another snaggle-toothed dig at the Hollywood star system, and will do nothing to harm the film's commercial prospects, which must be rosier than Cookie's both at home and away. But this is by no means a perfect film; it has problems of tone, exemplified, for example, in a scene in Gere's office where he is dealing with the panicked females of his clan; half the writing here is grotesque satire, half a sloppy, soap-like advancement of character and plot - and the actors split both ways as to which line they choose to follow.

The premise is simple: a successful gynaecologist is happily surrounded by women in his family and at work. To Dr T, women are an anchor and a cushion; but when everything goes wrong at the same time, the anchor begins to drag him under and the cushion to suffocate him. Farrah Fawcett plays the sort of role Melanie Griffith normally turns up in - an unhinged rich bitch, wife to Dr T; Helen Hunt is excellent as a golf pro who moves into an affair with the doctor with the same matter-of-factness that she swings a club. The film's anti-realist, camped-up side is on show in the chaos of Dr T's office, where face-lifted women in Chanel suits clamour for precedence, and in the discomfort of his own home, dominated by his wife's overstrung, tippling sister Peggy (Laura Dern) and his two equally out-there daughters.

Lyle Lovett's country ballads provide ironic counterpoint, and the production design and costumes and lighting are suitably hyper-realist, with more than a nod at the Hollywood musical. A flawed film, but essential viewing - and proof that Altman is one of the greatest American satirists since Mark Twain.