"3 Men and a Cradle" examines men's most basic fear, our darkest nightmare, that spot of dread at our heart's core -- the squalling infant. And at the beginning, at least, it's delightful.

The movie is essentially a French urban upscale remake of John Ford's "Three Godfathers." Three bachelors -- Pierre (Roland Giraud), Michel (Michel Boujenah) and Jacques (Andre' Dussollier) -- live together in a suite that looks like a parlor at Versailles. One's a cartoonist, another an airline steward, the third some kind of executive (he talks vaguely of the "agency"), but their real business in life is the pursuit of women.

The girl who comes into their lives, alas, is 3-month-old Marie (Gwendoline Mourlet and Jennifer Moret); her mother, Sylvia (Philippine Leroy Beaulieu), drops her off in a basket on their doorstep, while the father, Jacques (he's the airline steward), is off in Thailand.

What follows is a series of skits around the theme of the bachelors' inadequacy with babies, and writer/director Coline Serreau couldn't have managed it more dexterously. It's basic, physical comedy, a comedy of the failure of the bachelors' good intentions, which Serreau shoots with a deadpan camera. Marie dirties her diapers and cries; Michel walks her to calm her, but he holds her at arm's length. Marie cries, so Pierre picks up her entire cradle and rocks it in midair.

Serreau has a real touch for this sort of thing -- she knows, for example, how to use a door frame to accentuate the farce, with crazed French bachelors popping in and out of sight. The secret of comedy is the reaction shot -- particularly the reaction shot of someone who doesn't react. So what could be better than a baby? Wide-eyed and imperturbable, with a daffy smile, the infant sits in the midst of the insanity and says and does nothing. Serreau cuts in shots of her with crackerjack timing, and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier lights her beautifully to keep her at the center of the farce.

But Serreau doesn't know where to go in the third act. There's a jerry-built plot involving a package of drugs that Jacques mails back from Thailand, which the police get wind of. And there's some shtick, mostly a tired reprise of what went on before -- they still can't deal with the baby, but in less funny ways. And of course, this being France, the movie has to philosophize, to meditate on the hollowness of the bachelors' hedonism, their estrangement from what's really important in life.

Part of the problem, too, is that the movie begins to focus more on Dussollier's Jacques, while he is clearly the least talented of the ensemble, a frantic, persnickety character with a sour cast to his face (one of the movie's mysteries is why Beaulieu, a drop-dead knockout, would ever sleep with him). The movie's much stronger early on, when it sticks with Giraud, a beefy actor with a bullying, leonine mien, and Boujenah, a sweet, tousle-haired little guy who reminds you of Chico Marx. And, of course, Marie, who is just plain adorable.

3 Men and a Cradle, at the K-B Fine Arts, is rated PG-13 and contains some profanity, nudity and sexual themes.