There's a sty in the eye of this beholder, and it's called "Eye of the Beholder."

Great cast: Ashley Judd and Ewan McGregor. Clever plot: An intelligence agent monitors a predatory woman, coolly watching her crimes. Then he falls in love with her. Great location: All the world's pretty cities, including this one, New York, San Francisco and London.

Dud movie. Do the words el stinko mean anything to you? What about that old standby, el pieco de crapo? And those are the nicest things I can say.

The movie is one of those manifestoes of art in cinema in which the director tricks up each image with the maximum visual voodoo-hoodoo until (I steal this metaphor from a far greater critic whose name I can't remember) it looks like a collection of jackets for rock albums nobody will ever listen to.

The director, Stephan Elliott, had a hit in 1994 with "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," in which Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce strutted about the Outback in drag. It had an agreeably outrageous flourish to it, and Stamp's shenanigans were amusing--especially when he beat up Crocodile Dundee types in his Carol Channing outfit. But Elliott has gone off the deep end here.

Style style everywhere and not a thought to think! I hate it when they do that! Every arch, coy, attention-generating camera placement conceivable, every twisted fracture and cataract of the moving image possible, every hey-Ma-I-made-it-to-the-top-of-the-world! showy trope. It's eye candy as sugar overload.

Underneath all this pretty-pretty lurk a few fragments of a story. The agent is named--I am not making this up--Eye, and he appears to work for the British Embassy in Washington as an electronic eavesdropper. The Capitol dome suggests that the production's second unit spent at least one day in our town, but nothing else does. In any event, he is ordered by superiors to monitor the adventures of a prominent British man-child in New York who appears to be the fulcrum in an elaborate blackmail plot.

Using every gag Francis Ford Coppola thought up decades ago for the infinitely better and more disturbing "The Conversation," Eye follows the callow youth to the payoff, where he hands over a large chunk of change to a mystery gal. She strips for him, and you think this isn't blackmail at all, just the escort business at its highest end. Then she stabs him about 65 times--all bloody, you know--as Eye watches in horror and fascination.

For the next months, he abandons his day job to give himself over to his quest, which is merely to explore her life without influencing it. He frequently discusses his professional dilemma with his daughter, who seems quite young for this sort of thing until we realize she's a figment of his imagination. Her mother left him and took her along, so he is haunted by loss, a psychological mechanism that may explain his obsession.

A peculiar difficulty is that Eye is not at all an attractive character. McGregor is one of those confounding actors who can exude charisma in roles where that's what is written in the script, but failing that, he goes away. In this film, he's so charisma-free that he hardly registers. He's a seedy little man, unwashed and undynamic, given completely to his gizmos (camera, phone taps, the inevitable laptop and finally a rifle that shoots either bullets or photos). It's difficult to connect with him, even if it weren't so unseemly already.

As for Judd, she still arches her eyebrow more proactively than anyone this side of Marlene Dietrich and can inflate her voice with such utter disdain that it would deflate the ego of a Hugh Hefner. But in this film, she's glimpsed from afar, never from up close. Moreover, though she's well dressed, her face seems oddly puffy through much of it, and she's always wearing a wig (it's part of the character's twitches) or sunglasses, so it's as if she's not really there.

I kept wishing I weren't really there, either.

Eye of the Beholder (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme gore and some nudity.