May 20, 1991 12:00 PM

Ellen Barkin, Jimmy Smits

Here is an ideal comedy for anyone who might find it hilarious to watch Barkin dodder about for 20 minutes or so in imitation of a man who found himself in a woman’s body and didn’t know how to walk in high heels.

That is the humor highlight of this film, whose writing, directing and major self-embarrassment credits all belong to Blake Edwards. The lowlights include a 10 on the “holy s—-!” counter, innumerable adjectival uses of “f—-ing” and a pathetic attempt to make a discussion of rape into a joke.

Another example of the newly popular postmortem cinema, the film revolves around the notion that a ruthlessly womanizing man, Perry King, is murdered by three of his former women friends. He is returned to life in Barkin’s body to see if he can find even one woman who liked him as a man; if he can, he’ll go to heaven. Otherwise, he’ll end up in hell, presumably joining the black blobs from Ghost, the gargoyles from Jacob ‘s Ladder and the dropouts from Defending Your Life.

Smits plays King/Barkin’s best friend, whose camaraderie has turned inevitably to lust. It’s not the predictability of this development that makes the scenes between them so tedious though: It’s the script’s leaden spirit and lack of invention. Most of the attempted jokes have to do with the emphatically female Barkin expressing King’s macho attitudes. When he/she sees a pretty woman go by, for instance, he nudges Smits and says, “Cheek out that ass. How’d you like to give her a little punch in the pants?” Later he/she sees another woman and says, “How’d you like to play hide the salami with that for a week?”

This kind of thing continues, with Barkin confronting King’s past insensitivities in presumably enlightening fashion. It’s hard to say whether the ending is more maudlin or more obvious. Whichever, it’s not any fun.

Edwards, whose previous film Skin Deep also used a woman-chasing man as a comedy device, hardly manages one unabrasive scene here. Carl Reiner’s 1984 gender-exchange comedy, All of Me, with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, was superior in every way.

Barkin and Smits manage to stay reasonably untouched. (Much attention is given, though, to Barkin sitting in short skirts with her limbs splayed in revealing fashion. You have to feel vicarious humiliation for her in these tasteless sequences.)

JoBeth Williams is one of the murderers; Lorraine Bracco is a lesbian with whom Barkin has a fling that’s neither sexy nor funny. You don’t hate any of the actors, but your feelings toward the turkey they rode in on get nastier and nastier. (R)

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