LIFE'S A BREEZE in "The Big Easy," a film set savorily in New Orleans. Here in the city that forgives and forgets, you learn to take it slow and easy. So if police officers are on the take from local shop owners (via a pocket-filler they like to call The Widows and Orphans Fund), well, that's the way things go. You don't let moral dee-lemmas get stuck in your craw.

Director Jim McBride, mostly known for 20 years as the maker of the cult hit "David Holzman's Diary," has finally broken into the commercial ranks (let's just pretend the abysmal "Breathless" of 1983 didn't happen) with one spicy gumbo of a detective film. He makes the dark, laid-back sprawly mood of New Orleans the chief ingredient and throws in some tasty beef: Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. The movie thickens around them as they meet, make love, bicker, make up and finally blend. Occasionally a police-corruption plot line bubbles to the surface, but it's too convoluted to get in the way of Quaid and Barkin's Cajun cat-and-mouse game.

Quaid's a tre's dapper detective called Remy McSwain, with a thick, sing-song accent that is enthusiastically, if not authentically, New Orleans. Daddy was in the police force, and though his boy may dress East Coast chic, he's local as they come. The widowed Mama McSwain is well-known around town (she's all set to marry police chief Jack Kellom -- played by Ned Beatty with customarily seamless aplomb). And McSwain knows the easy zen of the city -- from the best restaurants (free meals for cops) to the seediest crooks (like Vinnie "The Cannon" Di Motti, who knew McSwain's late father well).

Everything's going peachy until highfalutin' tightbutt D.A. Anne Osborne shows up from the Justice Department, looking for police officers on a secret murder spree meant to corner the drug market. For this, she has to deal with McSwain. He seduces Miss Smug-Briefs but then gets caught accepting payoffs from a bartender in an FBI sting.

See, everybody's on the take. Osborne has to prosecute him, which can really mess up a relationship. With a little help from his friends, McSwain beats the rap, but the affair's dead. But then the drug-plot comes up again, insidious links lurking everywhere. And McSwain, who's decided to clean up his act and get to the bottom of this cop thing, joins with sulking Osborne and -- aw shucks -- you can figure out the rest.

The cameos are memorable. The late Charles Ludlam imbues his last role, as McSwain's lawyer, with a sleazy dignity. And Grace Zabriskie is alluring and authoritative as Mrs. McSwain, suggesting the young Simone Simon. The New Orleansy stuff is there throughout, from the wonderful zydeco soundtrack to a minor character called Rev. Daddy Mention.

Barkin may not look model-pretty in photographs, but her talent and intrinsic sultriness animate her into something beautiful, particularly as the Sandy Who Loosened Up. And Quaid gives an inspired, freewheeling performance, but no way is he a New Orleans boy, let's face it -- especially with that perpetual you-gotta-like-me-I'm-Dennis-Quaid demeanor. But then, Cary Grant was no journalist in "His Girl Friday" either, and that's not what Hollywood's about, anyway. THE BIG EASY (R) --

At area theaters.