"La Cage aux Folles II" (what a title!) was a foregone conclusion, alas. Having found myself immune to the appeal of the original, an inexplicable but undeniable art-house bonanza, it was some comfort to see that the sequel, opening today at the K-B Janus and Outer Circle, confirmed the immunity.

Michel Serrault and Ugo Tognazzi have returned in the roles of flighty Albin and steady Renato, a Franco-Italian homosexual variation on Desi and Lucy, and their misadventures threaten to continue as long as fans can stand them. While Albin and Renato have a long way to go before they rack up the credits of Ma and Pa Kettle, the original "La Cage" was on its way to becoming a peculiar institution at the K-B Janus, where it played 81 consecutive weeks and was withdrawn only because United Artists insisted on retiring the first picture while the second was released. I suspect that the prototype may be back in circulation sooner than UA would like. A 7-year-old theatrical hit at the time it was filmed, "La Cage" had a simplicity and cohesion that are lacking in the sequel, where Francis Veber's scenario flutters around as vainly as squealing, mincing Albin himself. The new picture adds a scattered continuity to a form of scatter-brained humor that isn't getting any fresher.

In fact, the movie begins on an alarming note of poignance. Alvin is wounded by Renato's tactful attempt to talk him out of doing a feeble Marlene Dietrich impression at their St. Tropez club, La Cage aux Folles, where the entertainment consists of transvestite acts. He tearfully avows, "I'm not ridiculous! I can still arouse desire. If I'm no longer attractive, I'll kill myself!" As a test, he goes out in drag in broad daylight. After drawing nothing but bemused smirks and rebuffs while seated at a sidewalk care, Albin is approached by a young man who happens to be a spy on the run from imminent assassination. Before being snuffed by a poison dart, the agent manages to plant a capsule on Albin, and this MacGuffin, eventually revealed to contain a hot strip of microfilm, becomes the excuse for a sluggish chase comedy, with the odd couple at the mercy of rival spooks.

Despite Renato's reluctance, Albin naturally goes on with his Dietrich impression -- in blackface yet, a brainstorm that seems to wow the club's customers, a strangely homogeneous selection of fashionable heterosexual couples. Serrault's other specialty numbers this time around are a brief stint in proletarian macho drag, pretending to be a gruff workman shouting epithets like "Fag!", and a prolonged bit as a peasant woman pretending to be Renato's wife. This situation reworks the original "La Cage aux Folles" masquerade in a rural setting and the culture shock is calculated to flatter French cosmopolitan feelings of superiority to the rustic Italians.

The enthusiasm for Serrault's performance continues to mystify me. It may be the most overrated drag act in theatrical history. Beyond puckering his lips into a bee-stung expression and overworking that whooping cackle, Serrault doesn't endow Albin with a remarkably amusing fruitness. The old-fashioned blatancy of his swishing was no doubt part of the widespread attraction -- Albin is probably easier for many heterosexuals to patronize because he's so queerly antique. Forget the masquerade tradition; Serrault in drag isn't remotely as much fun as vintage non-drag prisses like Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn.

Tognazzi's gravely fastidious Renato seems to become more ingratiating in direct proportion to Serrault's effeminate exaggerations. It appears that the rural sojourn ought to result in a funnier exploitation of their personality contrasts.

Molinaro does use Marcel Bozzuffi, best know here for his performance as the killer in "The French Connection," in a perverse way, suggesting that his tough exterior may conceal a latent yen for dressing up or even alienating the affections of Serrault. It's an outrageous possibility that needs to be taken all the way, like Joe E. Brown's unshakable infatuation with Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot." Molinaro and Veber may have discovered a commercial gold mine in inversion, but they seem ill-equipped to scratch for richer comic ore.