An eccentric comic sensibility keeps surfacing, like an elusive sub, throughout the rambling, misguided course of "Honky Tonk Freeway," now at area theaters. I assume that both the overextended plot and the congested gallery of sketchy characters, representing the residents of an imperiled Florida resort town named Ticlaw and the miscellaneous tourists who end up there, were dreamed up by the young writer, Edward Clinton. At once fertile and maddeningly random, his imagination is probably worth cultivating.

John Schlesinger seems a curious choice to bring a semblance of playable order to such a diffuse, American social farce. He doesn't so much direct "Honky Tonk Freeway" as allow it to run amok.

Almost the entire running time seems to be devoted to introductory sequences, as attention shifts from the folks in Ticlaw to the folks on the road. By the time everyone is assembled under the roof of the Ticlaw Inn for a blow-out meant to be as frantically decisive as the last act of a classic bedroom farce, the payoffs are bound to seem anticlimactic. There's simply not enough at stake with any given character or set of characters. The concluding slapstick spectacle of a massive traffic accident on the freeway outside Ticlaw merely calls attention to the embarrassing fact that the whole damn circus has self-destructed.

Ticlaw is placed in economic jeopardy by a new interstate, which breezes right over the town. The nearest exit ramp is located 35 miles away, a potential disaster for a community dependent on the tourist trade. The never-say-die mayor, played by William Devane, also a preacher and the owner of the local resort hotel and adjacent safari park, is double-crossed by a state official after forking over a $10,000 bribe. This betrayal provokes Devane and his fellow townspeople to ever more desperate measures -- a paint-the-town-pink campaign; illegal billboards; training the park elephant, Bubbles, to water-ski; finally, an act of sabotage that forces motorists to divert through Ticlaw.

This crisis would appear to provide more than enough scope for a hectic social comedy, but "Honky Tonk Freeway" presumes to jump all over the map, keeping tabs on a far-flung assortment of types destined to spend at least one night of their lives at the Ticlaw Inn. Beau Bridges, a frustrated author of gruesome children's stories, impulsively leaves his family in suburban Chicago and picks up with Beverly D'Angelo, a serene nymphomaniac from Paducah traveling with the ashes of her late mother. Two stooges from New York, played by the expert scroungy team of George Dzundza and Joe Grifasi, head south after robbing a bank. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy make an endearing return as New Jersey suburbanites en route to a retirement residence in Florida. She has the most effective farcical character attribute -- she's a cheerfully perverse lush who insists that she can't be a lush because her drinking is so public and constant.

Geraldine Page and Deborah Rush are traveling nuns, the former aging and strict, the latter young and antsy. Howard Hesseman and Teri Garr, a potentially hilarious marital team, get shortchanged as an Arizona dentist and his uptight wife, traveling in an RV with two hideous kiddies. A trucker with songwriting aspirations, Paul Jabara, picks up a rhino at a bankrupt safari park in Utah in order to transport the beast to Ticlaw. In addition, there's a hitchhiking doper played by Daniel Stern, a jeep load of muscular gays, a bus load of Indochinese orphans and a pair of car thieves.

The guiding spirit is meant to be summed up in an exchange between D'Angelo and Bridges. "Everybody thinks I'm crazy," she says, and he replies, "Well, we're all crazy, right?" The idea could be appealing: a comic odyssey, designed to evoke Saroyan and Sturges, in which a cockeyed caravan of American screwballs keep dates with destiny in a go-getting resort town.

Unfortunately, Clinton's hankering for an expansive comic canvas is not rationalized by either a masterful vision or impressive brush strokes. Scattered all over the place, the various characters, plot threads and running gags rarely converge and reinforce one another.

Clinton's tone -- or maybe it's Schlesinger's interpretation -- also wavers more than it ought to. By and large the foibles of the characters are depicted with humorous affection, or at least good-natured incredulity. However, there's a flip side to the more extreme, outrageous gags -- a smug hint of cultural superiority to the lot of dreamers and scramblers trying to find their niche in the American social landscape.