"Take This Job and Shove It" -- one of the pithier epithets of our time -- no doubt expresses a defiance that few wage slaves can afford to indulge outside of song or story. On some days it may be a virtual national anthem.

A hit country & western ballad by David Allen Coe, "Take This Job and Shove It" has now become the handle of an awkward, sputtering rabblerouser of a comedy-melodrama about the turmoil created at a cozy, successful Dubuque brewery when the firm is acquired by an exploitative conglomerate. Intent on a quick financial killing, the new owner imposes immediate, wholesale changes -- automation, a 50-percent increase in productivity and an altered brew, considered undrinkable by one and all -- that threaten to run the business into the ground in record time.

In fact, the time frame -- a couple of months at most -- is too severely compressed to rationalize a destructive process that would require a more prolonged period, even for a conglomerate of piratical highhandedness. The compression isn't justified on the grounds of comic eventfulness or pacing, either. The comic and melodramatic ingredients in the movie are poorly coordinated; they seem to be working at cross-purposes rather than providing mutual reinforcement. The curious thing is that despite the facetious look of the ads and occasional scenes of boisterous horseplay (for example, there's an impromptu football game played with a roll of toilet paper by patrons of a local saloon, Mooney's with David Allen Coe impersonating Mooney himself), the prevailing tone is rather somber. With good reason: Friendships and livelihoods are at stake as a consequence of the change of ownership.

The protagonist, Frank Macklin, played by Robert Hays, the personable young lead from "Airplane!," represents a potentially interesting update on James Stewart's Mr. Smith. Where Smith was a naive small-town do-gooder at a disadvantage among Washington political smoothies, Macklin is conceived as a small-town escapee who's making it as a corporate smoothie. A promising executive hotshot, he finds himself torn between company policy and old loyalties when he returns to his home town to supervise the modernization of the brewery. A Smith who knows the score but has scruples too, Macklin is anxious to succeed yet reluctant to ride roughshod over the working class he himself sprang from.

Of course, it might be argued that Macklin's background should disqualify him for the Dubuque assignment. Nevertheless, one could play along with the assignment on the grounds of front-office perverseness, embodied by Eddie Albert, a boss who might really enjoy putting Hays on the hot spot, if subsequent events were plotted with sufficient cleverness and consistency. The premise could lead to an appealing comedy and it's possible to imagine it diverging with equal effectiveness in the direction of vintage Frank Capra or Preston Sturges.

Unfortunately, it's a misfire. Barry Schneider's screenplay seems to be most effective when depicting the serious aspects of the conflict, like the hero's inevitable sense of alienation from old pals who never left town and now depend on his good will for job security. It's as if "Breaking Away" had been projected about 15 years into the future, with the Dennis Christopher character returning to Bloomington as the boss of his three ex-buddies who had remained struggling family men and incorrigible hellraisers.

David Keith, the likably rugged young actor who made a strong impression last summer in "Brubaker," brings a saving modesty and sincerity to the role of Hays' old buddy Harry, a tough but socially insecure young family man who is painfully conscious of hi limited options. When he says something like "We're nothin' but a bunch of dumb -- clock punchers; my life revolves around a paycheck comin' in once a week, and I'm not on the line for that," Keith has the knack of making a writer's potentially maudlin sentiment sound like a spontaneous, matter-of-fact self-appraisal.

To the extent that you take the picture seriously, it becomes difficult to tolerate the intermittent slapstick, the romantic subplot that involves Hays in a no-contest choice between nitwit city steady Joan Prather and socially conscious home-town girl Barbara Hershey, and the would-be reassuring denouement. "Take This Job" is too shallow to escape the expendable bin, but it might have turned into something of value if the filmmakers had been conscientious enough to keep a firm handle on their theme.