"Head Over Heels" a deceptively springy title, fails to compensate for the droopy emotional context of its cource material, the Ann Beattie novel "Chilly Scenes of Winter."

While that title obviously had to go, Joan Micklin Silver, directing the film from her own screenplay, is too fond of the book to tinker with it in a tough-minded fashion.

In a rambling, circuitous, flashbackladen manner, "Head Over Heels" chronicles the lovesick winter of discontent endured by a feckless young man named Charles, played by John Heard. He wages an uphill battle to impose his own charm and intensity on a fundamentally disagreeable, shallow character. A superfluous bureaucrat in some state agency in Salt Lake City (the novel's unspecified eastern setting has been transposed, curiously, to Utah, where the connotations feel all wrong), Charles cultivates an apparently futile infatuation with Laura (Mary Beth Hurt) a former coworker who has terminated their brief affair and reconciled with her husband. c

It was never an affair to remember. Indeed, trying to recall the high spots, I couldn't get beyond the first time Charles encountered Laura in the office library. Moreover, Laura seems to have compelling reasons to call it quits, notably her affection for a step-daughter, Rebecca, and the possessive, naggy insecurity of Charles' love.

Neither Beattie nor Silver invent a single reason why Laura should choose to throw in her lot with glum, clingy Charles. Her husband is perceived as a dope, but at least an amiable dope. Charles himself admits that there doesn't seem to be much choice between the husband, "a nice, dull large guy," and himself, "a nice dull, medium-sized guy."

Aside from the fact that he flatters himself -- Charles isn't particularly nice -- the comparison is devastating. There's also no arguing with Laura when Charles pleads, "Why would you choose someone who loves you too little over someone who loves you too much?" and she replies vehemently, "Because it makes me feel like less of a fraud."

So what prompts Beattie and Silver to imagine that a schnook like Charles ultimately deserves to get the girl he so tiresomely, humiliatingly longs for? Perhaps they can't resist the impulse to patronize a young man so emasculated and alienated to begin with.

There's a core of authenticity and poignance in the material that the romantic comedy gloss obscures. Our culture does seem to be producing forlorn, aimless young men whose sense of intellectual superiority is a very thin defense against their fear that they aren't about to score, romantically or professionally. These second-generation Holden Caulfields seem to have emerged from the confusion of the Vietnam period suffering from permanently deferred maturity and diminished expectations.

While recognizing the phenomenon and reproducing its idiom, Beattie coyly declines to administer a salutary satiric drubbing to its precarious sense of self-esteem.

Despite occasional witty remarks, her outlook is more sentimental than humorous.

Heard and Hurt sound like a swell romantic team, but they can't put over the brand of manipulation "Head Over Heels" depends on. It's much easier to like the subsidiary characters, who aren't forced to play against the logic of the material: Peter Riegert as Charles' easygoing best friend, Nora Heflin as a conventional girl who seems considerably more appealing than the elusive Laura, and Kenneth McMillan as Charles' anxious stepfather, forever trying to make friendly overtures and meeting rejection.

Silver's direction remains slack: Although she's alert to the distinctive aspects of her performers, she hasn't acquired a distinctive sense of composition or editing. The camera setups tend to seem arbitrary and the playing rhythm sluggish. The oll shoe is always threatening to drop, and sometimes does.

Diffuse, ineffective but idly diverting, "Head Over Heels" may muddle through as a kind of poor man's "Annie Hall." At the moment it runs neck-and-neck with "Rich Kids" for preeminence as the season's most negligible little romantic comedy.