"Money on the Side," an ABC movie about three suburban wives who moonlight as part-time prostitutes, sounds like, but truly is not, another cheap TV titillater. It's serious, sober and beautifully acted, and it dabbles in subtleties that place its aim well above that of the average TV film about the average socially explosive topic. It also packs the strongest feminist wallop of any TV movie since "The Women's Room."

The film, at 9 on Channel 7, suffers from one stylistic handicap imposed by writer-director Robert Collins and coauthor Eugene Price. They introduce the film, and occasionally interrupt it, with confessions to the camera delivered by the three characters. The device wears out its welcome fairly quickly, and seems whiny almost at once. The filmmakers want to establish, though, that the three "housewives" who become hookers do so out of desperation and not out of wayward desire.

"Face it," says Jamie Lee Curtis as "Michelle Jamison," "a woman's options in this society are really limited." Michelle is bored by her daytime job as a secretary, and she married an irresponsible drunk who keeps disappearing. "Janice Vernon," played by Karen Valentine, has a 10-year-old son with "special problems," an emotional disorder and a husband who can't make enough money for the mortgage payments; "life is complicated and you do what you have to do," she says. And "Annie Gilson," played by Linda Purl, has a hot-tempered blue-collar spouse, lost a baby early in married life and can't get a job.

Most of the men in the film do behave despicably, or weakly, it is true, but one Swell Joe is thrown in for contrast: Edward Edwards as a decent, honest mechanic who meets Michelle when she brings her car in for repairs after her husband totaled it on a joy ride.

You don't have to buy the sociology, or the politics -- if it is politics -- behind the film to find it absorbing and convincing as drama. But the filmmakers have set it in a suburban '80s world of layoffs, bankruptcies and foreclosures that is unarguably realistic, and this is also a world of sexual hypocrisies and double standards that are figments of nobody's imagination.

The producers of films with sensational subject matter like this one have a great advantage: a virtual guaranteed curiosity tune-in. They can either run with that along the easiest, sleaziest route, or they can go as far as possible within the limitations of the medium to make something with guts and meaning. (The dummies will stay tuned regardless.) Executive producers Jim Green and Allen Epstein, somewhere along the line, decided to make this a real movie, not just a gossipy tease. More power to them.

All three actresses are quite terrific. Karen Valentine, once written off as a nerdy ingenue, continues to grow as a performer and hasn't one false moment here. Linda Purl, who made her first TV impact as a teen-age hooker in the ABC film "Little Ladies of the Night," and Jamie Lee Curtis, who returns to reality-based drama after playing too many screaming heroines of corny thrillers, are both extremely powerful and grimly believable.

The film details how the Purl and Valentine characters got maneuvered into prostitution by circumstances, but the Curtis character is depicted as a cynical, longtime, hard-bitten pro; she even explains at one point that she "started turning tricks in college." In dealing with these case studies, the screenplay doesn't just render that old Hollywood-liberal bromide, "Society is to blame." Yet it persuasively shows how such women could be considered, to a degree, far more victim than criminal.

But what really elevates the film from the merely good to the exceptional is a daring seven-minute scene in the second half of the picture that appears to have been partly improvised by the three actresses. Until this point, they had been working out of the same sort of clearinghouse (a woman real-estate agent who doubles as call-girl central) but hadn't really been together. They go to an airport as triple dates for three incoming businessmen, however, and when the plane is late, they have the opportunity to do a bit of mutual soul-searching.

It's a phenomenal and riveting scene, more like high-intensity psycho-drama than a display of theatrical pyrotechnics.

The men in the lives of these women include Richard Masur, as Valentine's shortsighted husband; Gary Graham, impressively combustive as Purl's husband; and John Bennett Perry as a prominent client, Tom Westmore, who plans to run for Congress (he's just warming up for life on the Hill). "Why do you want power?" he is asked. "What else is there?" he answers. There's tough, not-so-glib inquiry into the attitudes and hangups of the American male here. Susan Flannery, ideally icy as the real-estate agent and madam, says to Curtis, "You're really angry, aren't you? And cold pause . Men love 'em cold."

In a parallel subplot, Christopher Lloyd (of "Taxi") plays a police sergeant under political pressure to crack down on the housewife prostitution ring; he is also on the trail of a psycho who savagely beats up hookers, and of course it is only a matter of time before the psycho's path crosses one the three key female characters'. TV morality demands that the women suffer for what they have done, but then, in a middle-class suburban community, they would suffer, wouldn't they?