For its first half, "Pumping Iron II: The Women" consists of much iron, little irony -- solemn navel-gazing on the nature of Woman. While the navels are splendid (as is everything attached to them), the metaphysics are less than engaging. Finally, the movie loosens up, becoming as funny and bizarre and sad as its male predecessor, a distaff's-eye view of the carny world of body building.

The movie follows four women bodybuilders through the Caesar's Palace World Cup Championship of 1983: Rachel McLish, the reigning champion, a Bible-thumping barracuda equally at home with bench presses and bobby pins; Lori Bowen, a Texas ingenue who wants the $50,000 prize money so her boyfriend won't have to be a male stripper anymore; Carla Dunlap, a black woman from Newark who has an outside shot at the crown.

The fourth is Bev Francis, an Australian phenom with deltoids like Virginia hams and a stomach like the grille of a Cadillac. A power lifter as well as a body builder, she has revolutionized women's body building with her massive muscle bulk; according to some of the movie's judges, she looks like a man, a no-no in a "sport" that grades its contestants on "femininity" as well as muscle. So for nearly an hour, "Pumping Iron II" gasses on about what it means to be a woman, women's right to have muscles, and so forth.

Director George Butler hasn't made a documentary, but a pseudodocumentary, with sections that are obviously scripted; the first half has the eyes-glazed talkiness of a TV problem-drama (you expect Benson to show up and say, "Gee, why can't women have muscles?"). Until the contest, the film seesaws from interviews to shots of the women in the gym, or close-ups of soapy biceps in the shower -- it has the same structure as one of those Playboy videocassettes, dressed up with feminism and the obligatory montages of Vegas' neon wasteland. Again and again, the camera pans from sinews to painted toenails or pretty faces. The point is to remind us that these really are women, and the camera doth protest too much.

Everything picks up remarkably, though, once the contest draws near. The judges are a classic gaggle of rule-bound bumblers out of a '50s British comedy; Francis' trainers (including Mr. America Steve Michalik) are a pair of lovable oafs; the emcee turns out to be George Plimpton (no kidding); and freed of the script, the women begin to let their personalities show through. Blowing kisses to the audience, McLish turns out to be an outrageous flirt, a Joan Collins who can bend quarters. "I think the hair is just as important as the body," she says, and as the competition proceeds, the judges dun her for wearing a padded bikini.

"Pumping Iron II" has its element of poignance, too. Francis is the only one in the movie with a sense of humor (she does a delicious little pantomime of cheesecake poses, ridiculing the judges' notions of "femininity"); she should win for that, if nothing else. But throughout, she's embattled by the charge that she's not "womanly" enough. Well, as far as that goes, all these women look like men, or don't look like men, equally. Francis is punished simply for being good at what she does.

The problem with the movie, though, is it tries to give Francis' struggle more weight than it deserves. This is body building, after all, a pursuit that has less to do with the man on the flying trapeze than the bearded lady. For all its sententiousness, what "Pumping Iron II" is really about is how women have the same right as men to make freaks out of themselves. That's important to these women, but it's not something to get all huffy about.

Pumping Iron II: The Women, at the Key, is unrated and contains some nudity and profanity.