Toward the end of "Paternity," a knuckleheaded romantic comedy vehicle for Burt Reynolds, there's a bewildering interlude of heart-to-heart "girl talk" between Beverly D'Angelo and Juanita Moore. D'Angelo, cast as a mildly mercenary dope who agrees to become a surrogate mother for the hero, a possibly dopier bachelor executive indulging a feckless desire to play daddy, recalls a dream she had recently and remarks wistfully, "Is that the dumbest dream you've ever heard?" Moore, cast as the hero's sagacious housekeeper, smiles benignly and replies, "Those are the ones that come true, the dumb ones."

"Paternity," now at area theaters, may not be one of the dumbest excuses for a romantic comedy that ever littered the screen, but it certainly feels like a numbing inanity while you're exposed to it.

When Burt Reynolds made a sappy spectacle of himself for the ever-doting Barbara Walters, confessing that fame and fortune seemed somehow vain without the patter of little feet around the rancho, I thought that he might have been jollying her. After all, he had been working on "Paternity," and actors have been known to identify too closely with their roles.

In all likelihood "Paternity" was contrived to exploit this particular streak of sentimental vanity in Reynolds himself. A witty writer might have justified the premise by going on to satirize the presumption that compels Buddy Evans, the 44-year-old protagonist of "Paternity," to trifle with human processes as fundamental as mating, child-bearing and parenthood. For all I know, that's what screenwriter Charlie Peters, director David Steinberg and the star imagined they were doing. Insufferably mistaken, they never rise above lamely smirky facetiousness, treating Buddy's folly as a cute form of willful ignorance.

Identified as the man who manages Madison Square Garden, Buddy is supposedly inspired to contemplate fatherhood by shooting baskets with the wisenheimer son of one of his colleagues and by attaching himself to a kids' nature study group in Central Park, where he learns about a form of bird life in which the mothers leave the offspring in the care of the fathers. Trite causes produce trite effects. While interviewing prospective surrogate mothers, Buddy gets into an unfunny insult contest with one woman and provokes further laborious mirth by mistaking his new interior decorator -- Lauren Hutton in a brief appearance -- for an aspiring mum. When he asks, "May I see your breasts, please?" she bolts and Buddy pursues her, a chase that exposes first-time director Steinberg at his clumsiest. By the time Buddy jumps into a taxi outside the Garden and orders "Follow that cab!" the cab he wants to follow could not possibly be in sight.

However, Buddy happens to share the taxi with D'Angelo, a struggling music student named Maggie who works as a waitress. When she professes only a clinical interest in the experience of child-bearing, he pops the question. Hoping to study in Europe, Maggie agrees to cooperate for a fee of $50,000. The strictly business relationship allegedly blossoms into True Love and weathers several spats, usually provoked by Buddy's dates with old girlfriends. Buddy and Maggie reconcile just in time to make things legal on the way to the delivery room.

Clucks from beginning to end, these feckless mates never say or do a thing remotely intelligent or plausible. Perhaps the premise itself could only work in a farce that treated the leading characters with the sarcastic contempt their behavior deserves. After presenting us with oblivious specimens, "Paternity" tries to pretend they're adorable after all. It's stupid on one hand and spongy on the other, a deplorable combination.

It might have been funnier if Buddy had become obsessed with fatherhood after returning misty-eyed from the last two Oscar winners, "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Ordinary People." For movie purposes, a foolish notion that begins with moviegoing has something to recommend it. Still, anyone who undertook a scheme like Buddy's would have to be written and played with extraordinary sophistication to avoid being rejected out of hand. Let's face it: Apart from Phil Donahue and his staff, how many people would ever be willing to give a couple as freakish as Buddy and Maggie the time of day?