Columbia Pictures declined to offer pre-opening press screenings of “Man of the House,” something that seems curious in view of the studio’s previous history. Columbia has press-screened much worse comedies in the past; this is the outfit that showed us “White Chicks” and “Christmas With the Kranks” last year before they opened, after all. That’s not to say that “Man of the House” is particularly good. But it’s not so much terrible as mediocre, a frail and obvious bit of fluff–sort of like a feature-length version of a one-season network sitcom–that’s nonetheless a lot less offensive than plenty of other Hollywood farces. In fact, the worst thing about the Texas-shot movie is the performance of Lone Star state Governor Rick Perry, who appears briefly as himself in one scene. He proves an even worse actor than a governor–which, for those of you not living in the state, is saying quite a lot.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Texas Ranger Roland Sharp, who has to impersonate a coach of the University of Texas cheerleading squad in order to protect the five girls, all sexy coed types of course, who are witnesses to a gangland killing. The tough-as-nails, all-business Sharp moves into their Houston sorority house as a combination chaperone and near-jailer to keep them safe from contract killers until they can testify about the crime. What follows is entirely predictable. The girls gradually warm to the gruff, grumpy lawman, helping him reconnect with the daughter he’s thoughtlessly neglected because of his job for years and acting as matchmakers in his romance with a UT English professor played by Anne Archer. He, on the other hand, develops a paternal attitude toward them, taking care of some drunks who accost a couple of them in a bar at one point, helping another with her Shakespeare homework, and even coming to appreciate the value of their cheerleading, which he initially dismisses as nonsense.

This is utterly feeble, silly stuff, which even on the most rudimentary storytelling level makes absolutely no sense. (It’s made clear from the start that the girls can’t identify the killer, so what are they supposed to testify about?) But if you overlook the gaping logical hole at the center of the script–and plenty of comedies have had even dopier premises–it’s not as toxic as you might expect. (It could have just been jiggle city, after all, and in the end it’s at least good-natured rather than mean-spirited.) Though Stephen Herek’s direction tends to be flaccid–this is a movie that ambles rather than sprints–Jones gets lots of mileage sending up his brusque, ultra-professional persona (super-Ranger Sharp makes Chuck Norris’ Walker look like a piker by comparison): the dour, hangdog expression he wears on his well-weathered face and deadpan line delivery have their own rewards, even when his character is forced to suffer slapstick indignities on a skating rink or a football field. (It may all be middle-grade sitcom shtick–just think something like “Major Dad” writ large–but Jones pulls it off pretty well.) On the other hand, although the girls–Christina Milian, Paula Garces, Monica Keena, Kelli Garner and Vanessa Ferlito–are originally presented as caricature brainless bimbos, as the movie proceeds they become a more varied, likable bunch–even if their defense of their devotion to cheerleading can never seem much more than a scriptwriter’s dream. (One girl’s aside about “Full Metal Jacket” being her favorite movie is obviously an in-joke designed to recognize the virtual cameo of R. Lee Ermey as Sharp’s boss.) There’s less justification (and virtually no pleasure) in the wraparound crime story, including the machinations of the villain, a crooked FBI agent played by Brian Van Holt, and a big action finale falls awfully flat. A subplot involving Cedric the Entertainer as an ex-con turned preacher, moreover, generates virtually no laughs, despite his unquestioned comic skill. And all the material featuring Sharp’s two young colleagues (Shea Whingham and Terry Parks), who are installed in a fraternity house across the road to keep watch on the girls “Stakeout” style, is really lame. (The guys occupying the place sure look way too old to be playing “Animal House.”)

The end product isn’t, apart from Jones’ presence, appreciably superior to the sort of fodder you’re likely to find on free TV every evening of the week, but it doesn’t descend to the depths most Hollywood comedies reach nowadays, either. The picture looks reasonably good–Nelson Coates’ production design and Peter Menzies’ widescreen cinematography are certainly of professional grade–though even on this level the picture has a slightly flat feel. But this “House” isn’t one that demands a trip to a theatre to visit. It’s much more suited to cable and the video store shelf, and you won’t have to wait long for the change of address.