Just for starters: Why does the man only have one red shoe? Is he absent-minded? Or cheap? Or did he injure his foot? And isn't the "shoe" really a sneaker?

As far as I remember, "The Man With One Red Shoe" never answers this question.

This nearly unwatchable espionage comedy (shot mostly on location in Washington) involves a plot by a CIA operative (Dabney Coleman) to overthrow his boss (Charles Durning) by smearing him with a phony drug deal. Boss sends assistant (Edward Herrmann) to the airport to "identify" an innocent bystander as a secret agent, which sets the intriguers off on a wild goose chase.

"It's the man with one red shoe!" says the assistant.

Said man turns out to be Richard Drew (Tom Hanks), a concert violinist; he's having an affair with Paula (Carrie Fisher), cuckolding his best friend Morris (a solid Jim Belushi). Soon enough, of course, he falls in love with Maddy (Lori Singer), one of the CIA agents, who falls in love with him, too.

The comedy winds around two jokes: What would spies think if they looked in on the nuttiness of our daily lives? And what bumblers those spies be! There is an elaborate sequence punning on the "bugs" that have been placed in the CIA chief's home, car crashes and bicycle crashes, and a lot of one-person-enters-room-as-other-leaves farce stuff. And one fellow -- you won't believe this, hee hee -- is in the sewer, ho ho, and he turns a valve -- this'll kill you -- and he gets flooded with water!!!

Give or take a car chase, the movie is a carbon copy of the small French farce "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe," which means that the decidely un-small and un-French Stan Dragoti is absolutely the wrong choice to direct it. Dragoti is a remarkably charmless director who hones in on the obvious with all the finesse of a SAM-6; French films of this kind, which may be nothing with their charm, are certainly nothing without it.

Dragoti brings his ad man's gaucherie to the movie, the zooming dolly shots and quick cutting; everyone wears sunglasses, which makes "The Man With One Red Shoe" play like some interminable Foster Grant ad. He loves his slow-motion, which only interrupts the pace. And he gets nothing out of his actors. Hanks, the young Jack Lemmon of the '80s, is squandered -- late in the movie, he gets a rhythm going with Belushi, but until then he's lost amid the clutter. Fisher shows some strength in what is essentially a demeaning role (she wears a leopard-skin bikini and wails for her "Tarzan"), while poor Edward Herrmann just seems miserable. Singer looks like a lioness and acts like she's been nailed with a tranquilizer dart by Marlin Perkins. Which is better than the lamentable Charles Durning, who, in a clear plastic raincoat, is looking more and more like the Minneapolis Metrodome.

And when will someone write a role for Dabney Coleman? A chiseled man with a sharp mustache, sucking viciously at his cigarette as if it were a snakebite, he's all aggression; he's able to manipulate people simply because he wants to more than anyone could want to resist. It would be a short jump for him to play leading men -- even at his sleaziest, he's got a star's charisma -- but he hasn't even had a good supporting role since "Tootsie."

"The Man With One Red Shoe" is the brainchild of Victor Drai, The Man With One Bad Idea, viz., to buy the rights to mediocre French comedies and blow them up into ponderous American comedies. Coming soon to a theater near you: "The Love Boat Potemkin."

The Man With One Red Shoe, at area theaters, is rated PG.