Experimentalist Robert Altman plays cowgirls and endings in his fascinating, new film, "Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean."

Before trying the film version, Altman directed "Jimmy Dean" as a stage play, off-off Broadway. The critics trashed it, but good. You can nickel-and-dime the movie to death, too, but it's a success despite its flaws: It makes you think and feel, so it works.

"Jimmy Dean" is the story of a fan club's 20th reunion at an old Woolworth's in a disintegrating Texas town. Cher, Sandy Dennis and Karen Black play the leading roles -- three belles with different clappers. It's a clash of acting styles that takes some getting used to.

Cher is a trashy triumph as Sissy, a corrosive backwater beauty, who wanted to be a professional roller skater but her bustline got in the way. Opposing Cher's barnyard slapstick are Dennis' Faulknerian artifice and Black's polished, cross-eyed hauteur.

Dennis is the frumpy antagonist, the ultra wimp. She stars as the Virgin Mona, alleged mother of James Dean's retarded son and president of his fan club. She was an extra in "Giant"; you could see her just behind Elizabeth Taylor's ear at the barbecue.

Karen Black plays Joanne, a cool beauty who's made the physical break with Texas, but come back for the emotional acceptance the town never gave her. Juanita (Sudie Bond), the clerk at Woolworth's and symbol of southern traditions, never gives in. Yet Joanne tears some love out of Sissy during a cathartic confession, the climax of this film that feels like a play.

Altman forces us to be intimate with the women in that Woolworth's. The scene never shifts from the fusty room where they reminisce the night away. At first, it's claustrophobic, because we're expecting the camera to go somewhere; but it stays put till the walls blow down while the credits roll. After about half an hour -- if you don't walk out -- it feels down home.

Altman, who finished "Jimmy Dean" in 19 days, also shot the flashbacks on that set with two-way mirrors and computerized lighting. But the flashbacks are worthless; there's no way of telling 1955 from 1975, so the gimmick becomes unneccessary, tiresome and disruptive.

What pulls the picture together are the two characters you never see -- Jimmy Dean, Mona's 20-year-old son, and James Dean, her safely dead love god. Near the end of the story, Jimmy races off in Joanne's Porsche. Twenty years earlier, one day after "Giant" was completed, James Dean raced away in a silver Porsche and was dead. COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN -- At the Avalon.