"Ironweed," the new film by Hector Babenco starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, comes about as close to being an unmitigated waste of talent as any movie in recent memory.

The film, which is taken from William Kennedy's adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, left me feeling frustrated and unsatisfied in much the same way the book did. Watching it, I kept waiting for it to expand, for the events to attain some cumulative meaning. And it never happens. What it leaves us with is a string of moody vignettes that refuse to add up.

Babenco has approached the novel as if it had much more gravity and significance than it really does. He gives it the important-work treatment without ever establishing why it might be important. It may be that this kind of story is too familiar to us; that aside from a few peripheral details, it's too generically a story about the mythos of bumming. And that neither Kennedy nor Babenco has seen deeply enough into that life to make it have meaning for us. The insight that might have drawn their bum heroes closer to us is missing, and they remain set off at a distance.

Maybe this explains why both stars appear to struggle here for something to play, and why so many of the scenes dribble out without leaving an imprint. Like the book, the film is a sustained meditation on the character of Francis Phelan (Nicholson), a one-time baseball player and an alcoholic, who returns to his home town after 22 years on the bum. Phelan, who left home after the burden of his accumulated tragedies became too great to bear, lives half in the present, half in the past. His real life is devoted to finding a drink and a warm place to sleep for himself and his companion, Helen (Meryl Streep), a former singer who has traveled with him, off and on, for the past nine years.

Increasingly, though, the present seems less real than the specters who spring up out of his memory to torment him. The movie is about how sadness over the past overwhelms and obscures the present, and how the dead are carried around with us, crowding out the living. But these themes don't weigh in with any force.

Filming in and around Albany, Babenco has given the movie a chilled, overcast light, as if it had been shot through dirty water. And as a result, we seem to see the characters always half in shadow.

Both Nicholson and Streep remain deep down inside their characters, but neither is able to communicate much of an interior life. Nicholson, in particular, is a disappointment. In "The Witches of Eastwick," he was doing Jack, and he did it for all time. And so there was reason to believe that doing Jack was behind him, that he would reach inside himself to find fresh, unexplored areas of his talent. Nicholson hasn't played it safe here; he isn't simply doing Jack. Instead, he's diminished all of his natural magnetism without discovering anything to put in its place. He hasn't become a deeper actor, merely a duller one.

As Helen, Streep does an even more accomplished vanishing act than usual. With her green cloche hat pulled down tight over her ears, she is for her first few minutes onscreen almost unrecognizable. And at first, she's such a nonentity, and keeps herself so turned away from us, that we don't relate to her as a real human being. She makes us feel a little like we do when we encounter -- and turn away from -- real street people. Later, when she does a knockout job of belting out a song in a bar, or after she's bathed and slipped into her kimono and sits all alone, staring at herself in the mirror, Helen becomes painfully real to us. We feel her fatigue and her shame and we want to turn away again, this time for entirely different reasons.

These are the best moments in the film, but they remain isolated, disconnected. Ironically Babenco, who directed "Pixote" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and was presumably felt to be the right artist here because of his unflinching insight into the lives of the disenfranchised and the homeless, fails on the most fundamental level. The movie never achieves the universality that might have given these characters' lives some meaning. We watch, expecting to be moved, scenes like the one in which Phelan visits the grave of his son, who died as an infant after slipping out of his hands. But the moment passes and has little effect. Babenco never convinces us, as he did with the lost boy in "Pixote," that attention must be paid to these people, not because their lives are uniquely different from our own, but because their story is our story.

Ironweed, at area theaters, is rated R and contains adult language and situations.