Filmed on location in Washington, "The Imagemaker" is a Stylishly photographed, mostly well-acted thriller of ideas, and it's with the ideas that the problems begin -- in short, there are too many of them. The thriller is the most rigorous of genres, but rigor is exactly what "The Imagemaker" lacks; it's sabotaged by its own script.

"The Imagemaker" consists of a series of subplots, each the germ of a story, but none a story in itself -- they're almost anecdotes, sketching in an atmosphere in which everyone manipulates everyone, in which nothing is what it seems. Media consultant Roger Blackwell (Michael Nouri), once a bright young man with a future, is now a bright young man with a past. Formerly a presidential aide, he was hounded from office by TV scandalmonger Molly Grainger (Anne Twomey), and (perhaps as a result of this) his wife killed herself. With his partner (Jerry Orbach), Blackwell has a new project -- a film that will show how the media manipulate people.

To raise the money for that film, Blackwell and his partner have an outrageous publicity stunt planned for Blackwell's appearance on Maury Povich's evening chat show (the other guest is Diana McLellan, playing herself). But they'll have to do battle first with the Ambassador (Farley Grainger), who doesn't like Roger. Then there's the videotape he's made of a woman (Jessica Harper) dolled up to look like his wife, which he plays on televisions in every room of his house each morning. And then there's a tape cassette of the president cutting a deal with a corrupt union leader, which, if verified, could bring down the administration.

The stories are only united thematically (they're all variations on appearance versus reality) in a genre that demands a strong, clean narrative -- "The Imagemaker" is an art film in the guise of a thriller. The story doesn't progress, exactly; rather, at each juncture, a new conspiracy is revealed. The sheer density of the conspiracies becomes, even by post-Watergate standards, a little far-fetched. More far-fetched still is the idea that Blackwell's film could bolw the lid off Washington, but the filmmakers, director Hal and producer Marilyn Weiner, never hint at any skepticism about it.

Piece by piece, "The Imagemaker" can grab you. The TV clicks on, waking roger with an image of what you think is his wife, preparing coffee in the kitchen and small-talking away; when you realize it's just a video, the effect is eerie and surprising. As the actress playint wife, Harper is an exposed nerve, seesawing between the chirpy, good ol' girl of the role and her own truck driver's basso.

The dream sequence, in which Roger runs through a series of rooms populated by standing nudes, only to find his wife with a gun to her head, is a masterful interplay of zooms, stop-frames and slow motion. There's fun in a political spot Roger makes with a redneck congressman, as well as in the clips we see of Molly Grainger's hatchet jobs. Twomey, quizzical and leggy, is mostly fine in the part, if, ultimately, a little too soft.

Nouri, on the other hand, iis almost entirely inert; he goes through the movie with a weak half smile, and his eyes are dead. When Nouri has to show some emotion, he gets uncomfortably frantic; he's much more comfortable preening. In the end, he's the first imagemaker. Narcissus.

The Imagemaker, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains nudity, violence and profanity.