In "Just Between Friends," Holly (Mary Tyler Moore), a dithery housewife, meets Sandy (Christine Lahti), a local TV reporter, at an exercise class. They hit it off, and Holly invites her new friend over for dinner, along with Harry (Sam Waterston), a colleague of her husband Chip (Ted Danson). The idea is to fix Sandy up with Harry. Little does Holly know that Sandy is having an affair with Chip.

Then, in the style of the considerably more endearing "Terms of Endearment," tragedy befalls this little circle. One of the characters dies in a car crash, and the three who remain have to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

I laughed, I cried. One of the most uplifting movies of the year!

Just kidding.

Actually, "Just Between Friends" is not simply inept, it's about as far from ept as Kansas was from Oz. The gears of the plot grind and clunk as the movie shifts from a bad Blake Edwards sex farce to a worse tale of maudlin sisterhood; the jokes are stale, and the music (by Patrick Williams) is sappy in that insufferable vibes-and-guitar sort of way. Director Allan Burns' central notion is to have the actors holler at each other. That's to show how much they care.

The work of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth is bland and messy, and he's no friend to Moore -- the way he lights her, her skin looks like the floor at a crows' convention. Burns, on the other hand, is so busy protecting Moore from her own bad acting (her big scene takes place behind a window while loud music blares, presumably because she couldn't play it) that the picture is out of kilter. Moore is no actress, and as a personality, she's worn thin -- she has that mix of infantile pep and spinsterish brittleness peculiar to kindergarten teachers you'd rather forget.

Moore, though, seems like Sarah Bernhardt compared with the lazy, superficial Danson (the real affair in "Just Between Friends" is between Danson and his own jaw). The usually fine Waterston smirks through the movie and ends up a bit doggy.

Lahti, on the other hand -- who seems to be making a career out of miring herself in crummy star vehicles like Goldie Hawn's "Swing Shift" -- is spectacularly good. Tall and lithe, with a soft face and a creamy voice, Lahti is wounded, profane, hip, offhand, glib and incredibly sexy. Her performance is exquisitely modulated: When the gestures get a little bigger, the voice gets a little smaller; when something happens, she reacts, but in such a way that it fits with the emotions that have come before. Everything connects. In "Just Between Friends," though, nothing else does.

Just Between Friends, at area theaters, is rated PG-13, and contains profanity and sexual themes.