The central action of "Sweet Liberty" involves a battle for the heart of a movie being made in a sleepy university town. The movie-within-a-movie is based on a serious book by Michael (Alan Alda), a historian of the American Revolution. But he soon discovers that the director (a funny Saul Rubinek) and the writer (Bob Hoskins) plan to make his book into a teen sex comedy.

Since Michael spent 10 years doing his research, this cheeses him off. He argues for historical accuracy. The director argues for the three principles of teen-sex esthetics: defy authority; destroy property; take people's clothes off. Michael schemes to bring the movie's stars (Michael Caine and Michelle Pfeiffer) around to his point of view. The director tries to throw him off the set.

The director, in other words, represents What's Wrong With Movies Today, while Michael represents the opposite. Now, I suppose it wouldn't be so bad to see Alda (who also wrote and directed) once again presenting himself as the very soul of integrity, except that his movie isn't any less dumb, shallow or exploitative than, say, "Private School for Girls" -- it's just older.

In fact, "Sweet Liberty" follows almost jot-for-jot the tired dramatics of the teen sex formula. As in those movies, everyone here is sex-addled. The hero rallies the nerds (in this case, the local citizenry) against the authorities (the director and his crew) by sponsoring uproarious high jinks. Everyone talks in silly double-entendres (regarding a large spear called a spontoon, for example). And once again, the hero is smitten with a gorgeous woman, only to decide in the end that Gretchen (Lise Hilboldt), the girl next door, is the girl for him.

Since the creator of this mess is also the fellow making all the noise, the movie comes across as ridiculously self-righteous, and the result is Alda's least attractive performance to date. His idea of acting is to slouch around and let his face go all crinkly, which is preferable, at least, to what amounts here to a perpetual sulk. Writers in the real world adjusted themselves long ago to the idea of having their books butchered by the movies (the money helps), but Alda's Michael is nothing but a complaint box. You want to shake him and tell him to stop whining.

As a Hollywood satire, "Sweet Liberty" is mild, and rather outstripped by reality; when you know that there's an actual script floating around Hollywood about the atomic bomb, in which the scientists at Los Alamos have a food fight, it's hard to see what happens here as all that weird. As drama, it's merely banal, just more male-menopause hand-wringing about the struggle to commit to one woman ("Sweet Liberty" is, you see, a pun).

The movie is poorly photographed (by Frank Tidy), the image blasted out with white light, and miserably edited -- the cuts come on the cues, so there's little sense of the actors relating to each other, or overlapping in any way. Having assembled a fine cast, Alda, who's nothing if not narcissistic, gives them little to do. Caine has his moments -- he's a killer with a throwaway line -- as does the extraordinary beauty Michelle Pfeiffer, who captures the brittle arrogance, the distant self-seriousness, of a star actress.

Silent-screen legend Lillian Gish appears as Michael's mother, in a subplot that makes little connection to the overall story -- Alda seems to be playing the mother's senility for comedy, but it strikes you as sort of pathetic, and the way Tidy has lit Gish just seems like cruelty (Billy Bitzer, where are you when I need you?). Hoskins, a terrier of an actor with aggressive eyes, struggles manfully with his role, but it's out of his range -- he's a feral presence, but Alda wants him cuddly.

Then again, Alda wants everything cuddly. The movie is, in a way, a fascinating glimpse at Alda's world view -- life as all soft edges. Michael is the ideal man because he knows how to remove the core from iceberg lettuce, and how to peel an onion so you don't cry -- he's always talking about making love, but what he really wants to do is make salad. That, and everything else Michael does, is fine with Gretchen. If there was an Oscar for goo-goo eyes, Hilboldt would win it, and as she and Alda wander from scene to scene, accompanied by Bruce Broughton's fatuously bouncy score, they seem less like real people than the hosts of "PM Magazine."

So when Michael's mother drives him crazy with her own craziness, he doesn't holler at her or anything -- she's just another guest on his feel-good talk show. The director represents everything Michael hates, but in the end, they shake hands good-naturedly. He has an affair, Gretchen has an affair, but they never argue about it -- it's back to the goo-goo eyes, the crinkly grin, and all's well with the world.

His movie isn't about life, it's about lithium, and the fact that he wrote, directed and stars in it may set back the auteur theory 50 years. He's Woody Allen for housewives.

Sweet Liberty, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains sexual themes.