A scrambled social epic about Aspiring Youth in the Turbulent Sixties, "Four Friends" was hatched by eminent collaborators, screenwriter Steve Tesich and director Arthur Penn, who evidently came together at a mutually wrongheaded moment.

The movie's commercial fate was sealed after conspicuous flops in all its initial engagements. And although "Four Friends" may pick up scattered bookings, like today's subdued and belated openings at six area theaters, it's destined to be regarded as a forlorn curiosity.

Tesich and Penn must have imagined that "Four Friends" would be a rites-of-passage saga that evoked the characteristic confusions of the 60s. To their misfortune, the finished product is a carnival of howlers, much closer to uninhibited burlesque than serious dramatic exploration.

The title refers to three innocuous high-school boys from East Chicago, Ill., and a pretentious girl who somehow fascinates them from one end of the unraveling decade to the other.

The nominal protagonist, Danilo Prozor, the immigrant son of Yugoslav parents, an embittered steelworker and his silently anxious wife, is presumed to be the author's alter-ego. Like Danilo, Tesich grew up in East Chicago after he and his mother left Yugoslavia in 1954 to join his father, who had emigrated to the United States after World War II.

Danilo nurtures a love for his adopted country that puts him at odds with his already distant, ill-tempered father, who is so dissatisfied with his own status in the vaunted Land of Opportunity that he eventually returns to the Old Country.

Since Danilo's optimistic vision of America is inextricably mixed up with his infatuation for classmate Georgia Miles, the phoniest of small-town free spirits, the argument seems overbalanced on his father's side. If Georgia and America are synonymous, America is indeed a bad joke. Danilo's progress from boyhood to young manhood is also a battered record of unfulfilled dreams, notably a marriage that ends in bloody catastrophe on the day of the ceremony.

Still, the abiding message is evidently meant to be hopeful. Despite the wreckage that seems to have piled up as Danilo and Georgia blundered willy-nilly through the decade, their paths repeatedly diverging and recrossing, we're supposed to emerge with a renewed sense of affirmation.

"Four Friends" inspires much unintentional hilarity. The process begins at least as soon as the excruciating ingenue Jodi Thelen enters in the role of Georgia, threatening to devour her wimpy admirers--Craig Wasson as Danilo and Michael Huddleston and Jim Metzler as his pals David and Tom, respectively--with a mouth as vast, wet and insatiable as the one belonging to the shark in "Jaws."

"Good evening, kiddoes," Thelen croons through an unflattering smirk, her big eyes threatening to flash out of their sockets. Having made herself persona non grata in a twinkling, the misguided young thing is obliged to go on belaboring Georgia's irrepressible, numbing affectations. For example, she teases the poor boys by stroking her clarinet suggestively. All four friends are members of the high-school orchestra, it transpires, and when they arrive at a school concert, Georgia really gets carried away, scandalizing the assembly by rising in mid-performance to shimmy and shake while hot-licking her helpless clarinet.

The zigzagging, confusing plot creates a comic framework. The chronicle of Danilo's decade-long wanderings and heartaches is always being updated in ways that send you reeling. Everyone and his Aunt Minnie seems to narrate the story at one time or another. The movie bounces from one absurd, outrageous episode to another, "unified" by the unwelcome persistence of Georgia, who keeps turning up like a bad penny.

Since "Four Friends" has no dramatic cohesion, even episodes designed to recall or resolve earlier events in the story are more likely to remind you of stuff from other movies. This tendency is perhaps most pronounced during a climactic brawl in which Danilo is supposed to settle a forgotten account with one of the class bigots--now a policeman, wouldn't you know it.

There's no dramatic justification for this gratuitous and repulsive punch-out between old high-school classmates. What it actually suggests is a gross imitation of the fistfight in the diner near the end of "Giant." It was probably a favorite scene from Tesich's moviegoing boyhood.

If the initial miscalculations were contrived by Tesich, Penn's obtuse direction guaranteed the eventual artistic disaster. Penn has been out of harness for a while, and "Four Friends" suggests that he was also out to lunch, since every dubious and embarrassing aspect of the presentation is systematically magnified. The actors are left wide open to public humiliation, and only Reed Birney, cast as the crippled rich kid who becomes Danilo's college roomie (and prospective brother-in-law), proves clever enough to finesse stupefying material.