Movie house construction in the Washington area fell to a nadir sometime in the last decade -- there's been lots of it, but it's almost all bad. A typical theater in the era of the "plexes" has a minimal, though legible, marquee; a mean little lobby; small seats in tunnel-like auditoriums reachable via narrow, labyrinthine hallways; and screens with all the appeal of enlarged Band-Aids. The fast-food de'cor remains an incitement to toss a tepid Coke in any direction.

So, let's give a cheer of sorts to our two newest theaters, which don't come close to justifying their billings but do appreciably improve a nickelodeon norm.

The advertisements promised too much, of course. They usually do. Even so, even discounting the propensity of the advertising industry to fib, characterizing the new Cineplex Odeon movie houses on Wisconsin Avenue as "the return of the elegant theatre" is a stretcher of large proportion. Ditto for a similar claim, "a return to elegance," made for the new Circle Shirlington Cinema 7 in suburban Virginia.

The new places don't live up to such imposing ballyhoo -- how could they? Each is a plex, not a palace, and neither can be described as elegant. That is, neither possesses qualities of "tasteful richness," "dignified gracefulness," "restrained beauty" or "luxurious or sumptuous" ornament, which are what one dictionary somewhat confusingly prescribes.

Actually, the slogans are doubly misleading. The idea of these new theaters being a "return" to days of glory is perhaps more mischievous, conjuring visions of great and not-so-great movie palaces -- splendorous marquees, fantastical lobbies, sweeping carpeted staircases, ushers wearing epaulets and white gloves. The movie palaces weren't elegant half so much as they were preposterously grand, extravagantly escapist, outlandishly entertaining.

Cineplex Odeon, built by the aggressive Canadian chain and installed in the lower levels of a new office building at 4000 Wisconsin Ave. NW, combines six theaters ranging in size from 169 to 463 seats. Its pleasanter aspects include a reasonably spacious lobby, a clear sequence of spaces leading to the theaters, comfortable seats, good-sized screens and a minimally consistent, clean-lined decor.

And there's real marble on lobby floors and columns. One almost gets the feeling that the word is out -- put in a little bit of marble and those hicks in Washington will think it's swell, won't notice the abundant economies -- flecked wallboard panels replacing the craftsmanly scagliola of yesteryear, cornices made (and not so well made, at that) of a dime-store metal applique', sconces that look as if they were made from shiny metal-plate leftovers in somebody's garage. The fact that there are three (or was it four?) different type faces employed in the various signs is indicative that there's no real design idea here, no governing taste, theme, motif.

This is all the more disappointing because the Cineplex Odeon Corp. has a reputation as being an industry leader in the revival of the movie theater as something other than a collection of dark rooms with meager screens. The company is the sole employer of Canadian architect David K. Mesbur, who must be the busiest movie theater architect in the world today -- he has 150 projects underway, according to a company spokesperson.

Among completed projects the company is responsible for are careful movie palace restorations (two in Los Angeles), inventive expansions of the multitheater complex (an 18-screen, two-cafe' extravaganza, also in Los Angeles -- do Californians have all the fun?), and even a brand-new palace in Montreal -- the Cinema Egyptienne -- designed in the spirit of a 1922 landmark in Boise, Idaho. Cineplex Odeon did not have control of this Washington project from the beginning. Maybe it will do better by the District the next time around -- how about a California complex out by Tysons Corner, or a far-fetched palace downtown?

The seven-screen Shirlington complex was designed by Kress/Cox Architects of Washington for the Circle chain, recently acquired by Cineplex Odeon (which probably explains the similarity of the advertising campaigns). In any case, though its big screens are bigger and its seats equally as plush, this theater suffers from many of the same economizing deficiencies as the Wisconsin Avenue house -- one can almost read the architects' minds as, step by step, they attempted to deal with necessitous cutbacks.

One idea that didn't get trimmed was to make the manager's office the main attraction in the high-ceilinged lobby -- with its soft hues and pedimented profile it sits there like a little house. But in reality this postmodernist touch is too lacking in connection to anything else in this bare-bones room to be appealing. To the contrary: Intended as the focal point of a design it looks, ironically, like a sorry afterthought. Nor is the crowd circulation system here wholly satisfactory, and a hapless little balcony the architects managed to squeeze in has the distressing effect of recalling the immense distance between itself and fabled balconies of yore.

Other than the commodious theaters the best thing about the new Shirlington house is its deco-inspired exterior, though this, too, is marred by all-too-obvious attempts to do too much with too little. The architects gave it shape at the top, they gave it color (grays, a rich salmon and a bright aquamarine), they gave it a bit of depth (each color distinguishes a different plane), they gave it neon and, most importantly, they gave it a Lucite marquee tower that'll shine like a pretty beacon at night. Even so, it's just modestly thrilling, if that.

Nonetheless, it's a building with a thought behind it, an aspiration to be more than serviceable, to in some way celebrate the everyday theater (comedy, usually) inherent in the act of "going out" to the movies. Not so much can be said for the other recently built plexes I've encountered. The new Circle Dupont, with five tiny theaters, is just a few notches above the worst of the urban plexes squinched into this or that office building in the District. The AMC Academy Eight in Beltway Plaza in Greenbelt is prototypically serviceable -- it's got nice-sized screens, seats with wider armrests than the norm and, like any well-conceived movie theater in a shopping mall, its lobby acts as an extension of the mall itself. But it's dull, dull, dull.

And the free-standing Multiplex Cinemas in Merrifield, Va., hard by the Beltway and Rte. 50, would appear to be the last word in a low-grade sort of efficiency -- it's an indestructible-looking box with an irregular shape (determined solely by interior requirements), stripped-down auditoriums, good seats, and a huge lobby that's as lively as a video game room. That is, in fact, a video game room.

So, despite their ridiculous claims to fame and their plentiful faults, the Wisconsin Avenue house and the Circle Shirlington are the best of their kind. This can be looked upon as distressing news. On the other hand, it can be seen as a sign of better things to come. What the heck, the year is new.