"The Money Pit" is Richard Benjamin's attempt to make a '30s comedy through the lens of Steven Spielberg -- there are contraptions and "smart" dialogue and, unfortunately, nothing to hold them together.

The movie traces the tribulations of an unmarried couple renovating a house. Walter (Tom Hanks), a lawyer to rock stars, has always wanted a place in the suburbs; Anne (Shelley Long) wants to want what Walter wants. When her ex-husband, a tempestuous symphony conductor named Max (Alexander Godunov), returns from a tour, Walter and Anne, who've been living in his house, have to make a decision.

So they scrape together the money to buy a beautiful old mansion, and immediately, things fall apart. The faucets cough up what appears to be chocolate milk; plaster snows from the ceiling; the staircase collapses. The various contractors -- the plumber, the carpenter -- offer more abuse than help.

"The Money Pit" has a two-joke structure: There is a train of sight gags relating to the house (when Hanks tosses a log into the fireplace, the chimney falls down, and so forth); and there is the joke of the contractors, who are richer than the people they work for. The story involves Walter and Anne's need to commit to each other, for which the house is a metaphor.

Director Benjamin ("My Favorite Year") never gets a rhythm going -- while he's competently organized the sight gags, you experience them as interruptions, and the "smart" dialogue lies limply on the screen. The humor is supposed to be dry, but it's closer to chalky. Hanks is trying to do Cary Grant, Long is trying to do Rosalind Russell, and they both end up flat as tintypes.

Cinematographer Gordon Willis provides his peerlessly velvet, natural touch, but the look doesn't fit the picture -- it's dramatic, not comic.

Basically, though, what's wrong with "The Money Pit" is David Giler's script, which is scattered and heartless. It's not just that the satire is clumsy, but that it's directed outside -- at the contractors, the rock stars, the symphony conductor -- instead of inside the hopeless folly of desiring a dream house.

Alas, Giler never digs inside that folly, never finds the way that Anne and Walter are victims, not just of the plumber and the carpenter, but of themselves.

The Money Pit, at area theaters, is rated PG