URBAN COWBOY -- AMC Carrollton, AMC Skyline, K-B Georgetown Square, K-B Cereberus, Roth's Silver Spring West, Roth's Tysons Corner, Springfield Mall.

It's a little like watching Hsing-hsing and Ling-ling attempting to mate, to see John Travolta and Debra Winger, as the simple couple in "Urban Cowboy," spend over two hours trying to find a modus vivendi in a mobile home. They're sweet and it's amusing that they have so much trouble doing the obvious, but after a while you get exasperated and wish they would just figure it out and do it.

This is not, however, supposed to be the point of the film, which is intended to be symbolic of the alienation of modern man, changing sexual roles and all that stuff. It has a symbol for this purpose: a mechanical device simulating a bucking bull, on which city workers can pretend, when out night-clubbing after hours, to be a part of the romantic myth of the cowboy. The catch, for the legend of the macho West, is that women can ride this machine as successfully as men.

But the symbol has been used like a piece of chicken on a string, which is lowered into countless huge pots of water so that the cook can call it all chicken soup. It appeared first in an Esquire magazine piece by Aaron Latham; more water was aded to expand it for the movie he wrote with James Bridges, and then it was made to serve for the novelization of the movie.

It's too diluted, in the film, to be recognizable. The men's city jobs in the oil industry should seem confing and demeaning, in contrast to the freedom and excitement of the myth. But Bridges, who is also the director, shows us only industrial scenes emphasizing beauty and danger. Up high against the sky, where a false step means death, the men look like heroes; it's at night when they let out their stomachs and put on their cowboy hats, that they appear as interchangeable parts of a standardized society.

The sexual competition has also been watered down to nothingness. The original story, about a real couple in a Houston roadhouse called Gilley's, attributed the break-up of their marriage to the wife's superior ability to perform this simulated indoor cowboy feat. In this version, however, the wife's big scene on the mechanical bull, done with the machine set too slowly to be difficult or dangerous, shows her using it for a sexual dance in which she plays the traditional female role.

In the end, both disavow any stake in whether she rides the thing or not. The husband appears as a better man than the alternative -- there are always alternatives lining up in movies, especially eager, passionate, beautiful heiresses dying to build their lives around lower-class men -- precisely because he is unsuccessful at the prescribed masculine tasks of beating up women and demanding dinner.