READY TO WEAR (PRET-A-PORTER) - * * 1/2 - Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Kim Basinger, Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman, Stephen Rea, Teri Garr, Danny Aiello, Forest Whitaker, Anouk Aimee, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Lauren Bacall; directed, produced and co-written by Robert Altman; rated R (nudity, sex, profanity, vulgarity, gore, drugs); OPENS SUNDAY, CHRISTMAS DAY, at Carmike Cottonwood Mall Theaters, Cinemark Sandy Movies 9, Cineplex Odeon Broadway Centre Cinemas.

It's a matter of acquired taste, of course. And most mainstream audiences have not yet acquired it . . . a taste for Robert Altman's unique filmmaking style, that is.As with "The Player," "Short Cuts" and - heading back in time a bit - "Nashville" and even the film version of "M*A*S*H," Altman's latest picture, "Ready to Wear," also known by its French title, "Pret-A-Porter," rambles through several story lines as it satirizes the world of high fashion, is filled with overlapping dialogue and boasts a truckload of stars.

But, as you might expect, it is also meandering, some of those parallel stories work much better than others and on the whole, it seems like a very long wait to get to the various punch lines.

Still, the cast may be enough for some audiences. And, frankly, as far as I'm concerned, any modern movie that gives Sophia Loren a substantial role already has a few points in its favor.

Loren plays the estranged wife of the head of the Paris Fashion Council (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who is accidentally killed in the company of her long-lost former husband (Marcello Mastroianni). Oddly, however, her story builds to what is simply an in-joke for movie buffs, which may leave most audience-members baffled. The payoff has her performing a comic striptease for Mastroianni, which is a spoof of their most famous film moment together (in the Oscar-winning "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow"). (Loren, by the way, who is now age 60, comes off as sexier than any of her younger co-stars.)

Teri Garr is also here, as a seeming clothesaholic spendthrift, whose actions go nowhere at first but eventually lead to a funny gag (involving Danny Aiello). Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman and Tracey Ullman have their moments, as competing fashion magazine editors, though their pursuit of superphotographer Stephen Rea is overplayed. And Forest Whitaker and Richard E. Grant get some laughs as flamboyant fashion designers.

Surprisingly, Kim Basinger - who has the nominal lead role, which acts as a thread to tie all the stories together - is the biggest winner here, hilarious as a harried and slightly zany television reporter doing cable network reports from Paris on the fashion industry's biggest show. (She also has a wonderful, brief monologue at the end that will likely sum up audience feelings about the entire production.)

But many of the other stories go nowhere, especially the teaming of Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins as reluctant reporters who inadvertently find themselves sharing a hotel room and wind up spending the entire picture in bed together. The accidental killing, which is treated as a murder with Mastroianni as the chief suspect, is also poorly played (though Mastroianni does have some amusing bits of business), and there is an out-of-left-field autopsy scene, filled with gore, that seems to hearken back to "M*A*S*H."

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Lauren Bacall, though she always seems to be hanging around, literally has nothing to do. And there is an ill-advised running gag about any number of characters at various times stepping in dog dung.

And after several segue sequences of genuine fashion show footage, which is often quite funny, Altman brings out his big finale, which seems designed to do nothing more than shock the audience: A nude fashion show, with naked female models walking down the runway. Supposedly, this is intended to make a statement on the superficiality of the fashion business (in a story involving designer Anouk Aimee's business being taken over by her son, Rupert Everett). But it comes off (if you'll pardon the expression) as merely cheap titillation.

All in all, a very mixed bag. There are some funny moments, but hardly enough to sustain the film's two hours-plus length - and certainly not enough to accommodate this incredible cast. (As if we aren't celebritied out by the cast alone, there are also surprise visits from Cher and Harry Belafonte!)

"Ready to Wear" is rated R for nudity, sex, profanity, vulgarity, gore, violence and drug abuse (marijuana smoking).

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