A sleazy, amoral Dallas lawyer sees his high-rolling lifestyle systematically destroyed by a mysterious, hectoring employee of the telephone company in “The Operator.” No, tthe picture doesn’t represent the re-emergence of Lily Tomlin’s fondly-remembered Ernestine character, but the low-budget indie flick, half thriller and half morality tale, is based on the comedienne’s fondly-remembered premise that you should be careful about what you say to anyone working on the other end of the line. You never you when they might choose to get back at you for your gruffness.

Certainly there are solid elements in Jon Dichter’s debut feature. The set-up is a solid, if implausible, one, and it’s worked out with as much conviction as one could want; the film is generally well appointed and shot, given its obviously meager budget; and much of the supporting cast (including the late Brion James as a villainous client) acquit themselves remarkably well. But there are serious deficiencies, too. One is the lead performance of Michael Laurence. Like many actors who have specialized in stage work, he tends to overemote on film. His brutally emphatic approach makes him seem a caricature of a Texan–the accent, for example, is all over the map–and as the character’s life unravels, his tendency to exaggerate things gets completely out of hand (a tearful confession sequence toward the close is especially poor); Dichter should have taken him more closely in hand. (One can only imagine how much more subtly Stephen Tobolowsky–who handles the smaller role of the protagonist’s smooth, businesslike bookie with oily aplomb–might have played the role. Even his less-than-beefcake appearance might have given the material an unusual spin.) Equally problematic is the twist the script takes in the final reel. One can appreciate Dichter’s decision to take an unexpected route, but the bathetic, redemption-is-always-possible sermonette he tacks onto the story comes across as palpably false. Had he kept to the rather nasty humor he started with, the result would have been a lot darker and more satisfying. Less grating, but still irritating, is the utter lack of personality given to the all-controlling title figure. The operator (Jacqueline Kim), shown only in shadow, remains a mere writer’s convention, and the fact that she’s depicted as an inscrutable oriental seems an unpleasantly racial bit of stereotyping.

Still, “The Operator” has some merit: it’s the kind of picture for which the phrase “shows promise” was invented, and if you impulsively rented it on video or watched it on cable, you’d hardly feel cheated. As a theatrical offering, though, it’s way out of its league.