Hoping to capitalize on the belated emergence of Laura Antonelli as an art-house sex star, the Key has dredged up a motley Italian import, consisting of eight uninspired skits turning on moldy sex jokes, that asks the desperate question: "How Funny Can Sex Be?"

The answer: Infinitely funny in real life; but this misbegotten anthology, now five or six years old, is content to extract sickly wheezes from stale situations.

In Italy the film might have been perceived as a farcial breather for actor Giancario Giannini, affecting a succession of silly coiffures and voices. Antonelli lends decorative assistance in most of the sketches, all of which revolve around Giannini's caricatures of disreputable, lecherous Italian males.

Director Dino Risi and screenwriter Ruggero Maccari fall into a rut and never scramble out. The opening sketch casts Giannini as a butler smoldering with lust for Antonelli, the maddeningly seductive, teasing lady of the house. The co-stars look amusing, but they aren't inventive enough to prevent an ancient pornographic gag from collapsing with a facetious splat.

Indeed, the filmmakers display an uncanny tendency for telegraphing and diffusing their ostensible punchlines or punch-images.

When you see Giannini as a twit who prefers old ladies to sexpot spouse Antonelli, or as a boastful groom stricken by impotence, or as a provincial ignoramus attracted unwittingly to an obvious transvestite, or as a twerpy clerk invited home by a coworker whose wife acts shamelessly provocative, you see the kickers coming long before Risi and Maccari can lift their feeble comic legs.

Two sketches generate marginal curiosity and interest because of affinities with more recent movies. An episode called "Love in a Shanty" is clearly a failed, preliminary attempt at the social satire that grew into "Down and Dirty" when Maccari later took the premise to another director, Ettore Scola. Despite its grotesque facetiousness, the transvestite episode includes a performance of some comic stature and dignity by Alberto Lionello as the transvestite.

If Michel Serrault's fluttery swishing in "La Cage aux Folles," the most preposterous "hit" since "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," can inspire widespread, inexplicable delight, Lionello's beefy, grave drag queen deserves a modest salute. It's certainly a more subtle and distinctive kind of caricature.

A skit called "Wild Gooseberries" boasts one mildly nutty element: Italian actors speaking pidgin Swedish, a conceit that recalls pleasant memories of the "Show of Shows" comedians in paradies of foreign films. Unfortunately, "Wild Gooseberries" doesn't evolve into a parody of anything, let alone a patsy as parody-prone as Ingmar Bergman.

In pursuit of sustained comic goofiness, Giannini shows some surprising faces. For example, his clerk suggests Ron Leibman doing an impression of Jerry Lewis. Giannini's career as the definitive protagonist for Lina Wertmuller may have obscured the fact that he seems basically a comic actor and presence. Many of us first became aware of him as part of Scola's "Pizza Triangle" with Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti. Unlike Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman in years gone by -- and Nino Manfredi in the recent "Bread and Chocolate" and "Down and Dirty" -- Giannini still seems to be awaiting exceptional comic roles, while auditioning like crazy.

Antonelli, of course, has found her niche. A peculiarly enticing combination of the demure and the carnal, she has ripened into an erotic attraction in her own right. The acting resources are obviously limited, but she's phenomenally persuasive when throwing come-hither glances and even more phenomenally convincing when projecting sexual arousal.

What appears to be lacking in the vehicles that have reached us since "Malizia" is a sufficiently witty, artful exploitation of the dramatic and humorous opportunities suggested by her sexiness.

Risi directs like a born crudie. If he were less complacent, he might have gone beyond the obvious, repetitive pinup girl and striptease situations, which tend to fix Antonelli as a static, passive object of pornographic contemplation. He might have tried to develop her evident enthusiasm for bedroom farce.

Sooner or later she'll probably collaborate with filmmakers spontaneous enough to help her attain a semblance of comic style.

But "How Funny Can Sex Be?" is obviously the handiwork of filmakers with little style to spare.