In "Mass Appeal," Father Farley (Jack Lemmon), a middle-aged priest grown fat and comfortable with an affluent parish, is challenged by Deacon Dolson (Zeljko Ivanek), a young seminarian burning with new-found faith. Farley drives a Mercedes; Dolson jogs. By the end, Dolson is borrowing the car and Farley is huffing and puffing in his Nikes.

And there you have it.

Although the movie has been adapted by Bill C. Davis from his Broadway hit (and is every bit as talky as a play), the true auteur of "Mass Appeal" is Lemmon, who has been hounding us for years with scanty variations on this role. Lemmon began his career brilliantly with a light, intelligent touch for comedy; his trademark was a sort of effete frenzy. But at some point he became a Serious Actor, and the result has been a series of performances in which, as the representative of some segment of society widely thought to be corrupt (nuclear power, business or, here, the Catholic Church), he is confronted by a young idealist; by the end, he inevitably reveals the goodness at his core and becomes the antagonist of his own caste.

The ploy of such roles is to play to the paradoxical way in which critics of American institutions regard themselves as men and women of conscience somehow apart from them. That strategy is nowhere more successful than in a Hollywood composed of self-styled gunslinging idealists. Of course, that's part of the point. Lemmon's recent work has a curiously insulated quality -- he's not acting, he's making love to Oscar.

"Mass Appeal" is another such Oscar Appeal, a parable and almost a parody of Hollywood's self-image.

Father Farley is an entertainer who jokes from the pulpit and regards the collection plate, passed after the sermon, as "like a Nielsen rating." But he comes to acknowledge that mere entertainment is a species of lie, a cynical way to soothe an audience that ought to be "challenged"; when he talks confidently about his methods of stroking his parishioners, the movie says it's something he has to outgrow.

The problem is that Lemmon is such an engaging huckster -- Davis gives him a quiver full of witty one-liners, and he deploys them in his usual rapid fire. What's wrong with giving people pleasure? Ivanek, by contrast, is a pale, tormented prig obsessed with banal indignation, storming at the churchgoers for their "cashmere coats and mink hats."

In the movie's best scene, Ivanek scolds Lemmon for cooing dumb slogans to a woman in an hour of grief and Lemmon replies, "Your role as a priest is to raise common grief to the level of the inconsolable by saying something inane." That seems like a pretty good strategy, but Ivanek looks at Lemmon as if he had just served a haunch of mutton on Good Friday. You want Ivanek to learn something from Lemmon, but the thrust of the movie all goes the other way.

"Mass Appeal" is riddled with this kind of colloquy. Lemmon encourages Ivanek to fib; Ivanek says there's no such thing as a "harmless lie"; the brass ring goes to self-righteousness. And there's a creepy subplot about homophobia, centered in the character of the monsignor (Charles Durning), who wasn't in the two-character Broadway play and isn't really here, either.

The action of "Mass Appeal" comes in watching Lemmon shift from talking fast and flipping his hands around to squinting, yipping and tensing the cords in his neck. After enduring this display of fake emotion, you understand why, earlier in the movie, he's so convincing as a fraud. Mass Appeal, at area theaters, is rated PG.