In "Garbo Talks," Sidney Lumet's fuzzy, emotionally tawdry melodrama, Hollywood reenacts what has become its version of an Incan fertility rite: A woman dies of cancer so that her loved ones can discover themselves and prosper. Maybe we can't lick the big C, but can't we ban it from the screen?

Estelle Rolfe (Anne Bancroft) is an ebulliently combative political activist. The Last Angry Woman, she even refused to attend the wedding reception for her son, Gilbert (Ron Silver), because hotel employes were on strike. When her doctor tells Gilbert that she has an inoperable brain tumor, and "There's nothing to be done," Gilbert replies, "That's the one attitude she won't understand."

Estelle's dying wish is to meet Greta Garbo, whom she has worshiped for years, so Gilbert essays a quest for the reclusive star. He hires a paparazzo (Howard Da Silva) to stake out her apartment; he poses as a delivery boy for a gourmet caterer; he sleeps on the beach outside her Fire Island hideaway.

What will Garbo say? "Luff means never haffink to say you're sorry"?

Screenwriter Larry Grusin has a long career in TV movies, where using cancer to crudely manipulate an audience is something of a cottage industry; he's written the sort of one-joke script (what madcap lengths will Gilbert go to in his search?) that doesn't translate to the big screen. Lumet is peerlessly adept with large, complicated themes, but he's only as good as his material. He's directed "Garbo Talks" as a series of short takes connected with fade-outs that give it a gauzy, meandering feel. What seems to have attracted Lumet is the chance to direct an "I Love New York" commercial -- the movie is glutted with obtrusive Gotham locales, and everyone in the Manhattan theater world (Da Silva, Dorothy Loudon, Harvey Fierstein and Hermione Gingold all chip in with cameos) and social world (John Lindsay, George Plimpton, Liz Smith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. walk on as extras) gets a chance to be in pictures. "Garbo Talks" is Lumet's tribute to Zabar's.

Anne Bancroft brings an engaging vivacity to her role as a woman who makes love to the world by attacking it; hers is an expertly modulated performance that never veers toward caricature. But Ron Silver just mopes -- with his big, baggy eyes looking down dolefully over his spearhead of a nose, he's Bela Lugosi in a quiet moment. And Carrie Fisher and Catherine Hicks walk through their walk-throughable roles as, respectively, the wife who leaves and the spontaneous shiksa who replaces her.

Although the names are kept ambiguous, Grusin's characters are explicitly Jewish, recruited from the ranks of a bad ethnic joke -- the put-upon father, the goading, sarcastic mother, the doting son, the sexless, Gucci-shod wife who won't touch her trust fund: "Cut into the principal? My father says it's like spitting on God." There's something offensive about this shameless parade of stereotypes; who wants to watch these caricatures haggle over the terms of endearment?

"Garbo Talks," at area theaters, is rated PG-13 for mature themes.