A movie like “National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers” poses a real challenge to a critic. In the case of excellent films, one is often forced to analyze them deeply in order to disclose the minor flaws that might be important to readers. In that of an ordinary bad picture, you still try to find something, however minor, to praise. But with a movie like this, you can only throw up your hands in despair. But there’s absolutely nothing good you can say about “Gold Diggers”–it’s such a stinker that each ticket should come with a can of Glade. One would like to say that its brevity is a virtue, but although the picture is less than ninety minutes long, it’s still not short enough.

The plot is itself a dreadful idea. Two bumbling young guys, Cal and Owen (Will Friedle and Chris Owen), orphans now on their own after hitting the streets, try to become successful thieves after trying a string of dead-end jobs, but they prove complete failures. Finally they decide to marry two elderly sisters, Betty and Doris Mundt (Renee Taylor and Louise Lasser), whom they’ve recently tried to rob–without success, of course–under the mistaken notion that they’re rich. But the sisters are actually on the verge of bankruptcy, since their screwball uncle inherited the family fortune (derived, one must note, from condoms), and they plan to kill their new husbands. What follows is a ghastly, totally misguided attempt at a black comedy in the “Ladykillers” mode (indeed, the original title was “Lady Killers”), as the wives attempt to snuff their husbands and vice versa, resulting in the deaths of a number of innocent bystanders and culminating in a joint effort to rob the maniacal uncle. The appalling ending actually has the quartet getting away with murder and enjoying the fruits of their misdeeds.

But even if some way had been found to revise the plot line in order to make it less morally horrendous (even the darkest farce has to play by some rules, so that–for example–the victims aren’t just passersby), “Gold Diggers” would have been abominable. Gary Preisler’s script hasn’t a trace of wit or insight, relying on the crudest dialogue and crassest situations (the parade of jokes involving farts and withered skin is itself execrable), and his direction is equally ham-fisted, lacking even the basic rudiments of style and pacing. (A purported silent movie dramatizing the Mundt paterfamilias’ invention of the condom–from his work in a sausage factory!–is especially awful.) The actors have to suffer the worst sort of indignity, so that even as one groans at what they’re doing, you still have to feel acute embarrassment on their behalf. Friedle might mug and squeal beyond all endurance, for example, but he also has to don Hasidic garb and spout a terrible Jewish accent at one point. And as much as his even dumber buddy Owen might annoy with his glazed expression and malapropisms, even he doesn’t deserve to be strapped to a bed and covered in whipped cream and nuts. Taylor is terrible, but she shouldn’t be compelled to dress in such astoundingly garish outfits and fondle her bosom so extravagantly. And as for Lasser, what can you say? Here’s a woman who once had a career–charmed us, even, on the screen and the tube. To think that she’s sunk to the level of trying to get laughs clothed in outfits that look as though they might have come from the leftover wardrobe of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is incredibly depressing. To add to the miserable news, “Gold Diggers” is a chitzy, grubby production, ugly to look at as well as to watch and listen to.

The National Lampoon name, which used to be attached to pictures like “Animal House” and “Vacation,” has certainly fallen on hard times if those who control it now choose to apply it to drek like this. At one point in the movie, the caricature black preacher who weds our two couples follows up his instruction to kiss the bride with the words, “Somebody give me a blindfold–I don’t want to see this shit.” As far as “Gold Diggers” is concerned, those are words to live by.