On Saturday nights, girls like Annette paint on the lacquered look of love and try to turn hunters like Tony Manero, 19, into husbands. On Saturday nights Tony's temples throb, his two-tone Chevy rumbles, his pulse quickens - but it's not over girls like Annette. He wants to boogie.

Tony's caught the curious affliction Robert Stigwood Productions brings to the screen in "Saturday Night Fever," opening today at area theaters and starring John Travolta as the "Fred Astaire of brooklyn." The Norman Wexler screenplay is based on the curious social contagion of New York's lower-middle-class borough kids that Nik Cohn chronicled in a 1976 New York magazine article, "The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night."

Travolta plays a sympathetic punk - a paint-store cleark by day, disco king by night. His contemptuous father is unemployed; his mother doesn't know how she can every explain away and older brother who leaves the Catholic priesthood. Tony can't wait to escape his daily existence.

On his wall are the icons of the Pepsi Generation: posters of Farah, Al Pacino, sylvester Stallone. And come Saturday night, he will bask in their approval, blow-dry the hair, don the gold chains, unbutton the polyster shirt to show that sexy swatch of chest hair and swagger on down to the 2001 Odyssey Club in Bay Ridge. It is here, through high-stepping glory and the adulation of his gang, that he becomes somebody.

As Tony Manero, Travolta is cut from the same cloth as his "Welcome Back Kotter" character, Vinnie Barbarino. Travolta's explosive dancing as the disco hero of neighborhood toughs should thrill folks who stay up to watch "The Midnight Special." The dance sequences, for which Travolta spent three months rehearsing, are as good as any you'll see on "Soul Train." Brooklyn graduates of the 2001 Club might even swell with pride, for "Saturday Night Fever" was filmed on location; the Bay Ridge disco is where Tony meets Stephanie (Karen Gorney, from the "Days of Our Lives" soap opera).

Stephanie, a secretary bent on self-improvement, is Eliza Doolittle in search of Professor Higgins; but Tony will have to do. Her air of calculated indifference chips away at Tony's pack allegiance, and together they set out to win a dance contest and wind up in a tumultuous, if unbelievable, romance. Gorney, in her first major post-soap role, affects a Brooklyn accent that grates like a tone-deaf language student braving French I.TIn an attempt to create a Brooklyn "Graffiti" - gourment dining at the White Castle, formula street fights, the usual backseat sex, and the incumbent dilemmas of indiscretion - director John Badham sometimes resorts to recycled realism. Unfortunately, "Saturday Night Fever," in scouting out the shallow, searching relationships of post-adolescence, struggles to overcome the limitations of its characters.

Sylvester Stallone unfolded as a wonderful underdog in "Rocky." He won us over with his understanding of a bum's fight against the odds.Travolta, equally at home in his back-alley role as Tony, will be someone to watch; his fancy footwork redeems "Saturday Night Fever." But the film, dappled with hackneyed subplots., doesn't do much more than dramatize limited horizons. Unlike "Rocky," you just don't feel like standing up to cheer.