AUTHOR WARREN Adler has written publicly about the torturous, 15-year route from Hollywood's initial interest in his pulp novel "Random Hearts" to its eventual movie release this weekend. But it doesn't take 20 minutes of watching this movie -- which stars Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas -- to realize the project wasn't worth anybody's trouble.

A little background about the novel bears telling, just to illustrate everything that is wrong with Hollywood.

Adler's book, set in Washington, is about a congressman's administrative assistant and the wife of an affluent lawyer who discover their respective spouses are among the dead in a plane crash on the 14th Street bridge. (The fictional tragedy is obviously appropriated from the Air Florida disaster of 1982.) The bereaved also discover their spouses -- who posed as a married couple under a false name on the flight -- were having an affair.

It's a pretty lousy novel, to be honest. But it does have some interesting elements, most particularly, a detective (haunted himself by a wife who cheated on him years ago) who finds himself with the omniscient responsibility of telling the bereaved spouses about the tragedy and the affair. There is also the matter of a pregnancy that I should not get into, I suppose, so that Adler can sell more books. This last point, so significant in the novel, doesn't even figure in the movie.

Ah, the movie. Directed by Sydney Pollack and written by Kurt Luedtke, the film departs so radically from the book's initial flight pattern, it disappears from the radar screen. And if this downward spiral is remarkable for anything, it's how long the darn drama takes to hit the water.

Over the numbing course of almost 2 1/2 hours (an eternity for a studio-generated thriller), "Random Hearts" freefalls past four or five clear narrative endings before settling on the choppy surface of a pseudo-romantic conclusion.

Almost everything that is wrong with the Hollywood system can be found here, from a newly concocted subplot involving murder and tampering with witnesses, to Pollack's laughably hyperbolic direction. "Random Hearts" is such a disaster, it should be cordoned off with police tape.

Maybe the filmmakers were wise to depart from the novel, but they didn't exactly improve things. Instead of meeting with the 14th Street bridge, the plane lands in the Chesapeake Bay.

Instead of playing the congressional assistant of the original story, Harrison Ford is transformed into a dynamic sergeant in the Internal Affairs division of the D.C. Police Department, embroiled in a case involving homicide by a renegade D.C. cop (Dennis Haysbert in the most stupefyingly negative role of his career). Ford is Van Den Broeck, whose macho nickname is Dutch. But his puffy hairdo and ear stud made me think "Dandelion Head" would have been more appropriate.

According to Adler's recent article in the New York Times, Ford has actually been demoted. In previous script incarnations (this movie has changed hands more often than Elizabeth Taylor), his character was a senator.

But don't worry, the political clout has been passed on to Scott Thomas, the widow, who suddenly becomes a Republican congresswoman fighting for reelection in New Hampshire. In the book she has a little boy called Ben. In the movie she has a Chelsea Clinton-derived 15-year-old daughter. See, if you want big movie actors to come out to play, they have to be really, really dynamic people or they're just going to take their ball and go home.

When Dutch and Kay hear about the crash in the Bay, neither is particularly alarmed, since neither knows the truth yet. But Dutch gets a nagging bad vibe because his wife left a late phone message saying something about flying to Florida to organize a fashion shoot.

Because he's really Harrison Ford, Dutch gets to do most of the finding out in the movie. He badgers his wife's colleagues at Sak's, he demands to see the passenger list and, even though her name isn't on the list, he perseveres until he learns the truth.

Meanwhile Kay is busy with her reelection campaign and -- because she's Kristin Scott Thomas -- she spends much of the time simply looking beautiful for us. Her clothes designer gets a credit at the beginning, by the way. I would like to take this opportunity to mention my designer: the racks at Hecht's.

Hollywood's usual shortcutting prevails when it comes to Washington. At one point, it seems to me, the couple is supposed to be heading across Memorial Bridge toward D.C., even though the Lincoln Memorial is behind them. (Perhaps this is a joke-tribute to the same mistake in Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train.") Ford also speeds from Georgetown to Friendship Heights in one short, tire-screeching maneuver that would render harried Washington commuters breathless. Not since Kevin Costner scrambled from the Whitehurst Expressway to the Shops at 13th Street and onto the Baltimore subway in "No Way Out" have I seen such creative geography.

Will Dandelion Head, I mean, Dutch, ever get together with Kay? This question is a foregone conclusion, simply because of the casting. I was resigned, therefore, to finding suspense wherever I could get it, or throwing out cat-calling questions. Will Harrison's hair ever go down? How can I get to Friendship Heights that fast? And how come, when men meet for serious talks in movies, they always go to a parking lot? Hey, I had to do something with all that free time.

RANDOM HEARTS (R, 133 minutes) -- Contains violence, sex, obscene language and Hollywood filmmaking. Area theaters.