“I just made a huge mistake, but I promise this will never happen again.” You might imagine that these words were spoken by Warren Beatty after his notorious big-budget debacle “Ishtar” in 1987, but you’d be wrong; they’re a line that his character, a New York architect named Porter Stoddard, recites at the beginning of “Town and Country” with reference to his having cheated on Ellie (Diane Keaton), his wife (and business partner) of thirty years, by bedding attractive cellist Alexandra (Nastassja Kinski)–apparently the first instance of infidelity in which he’s engaged over three decades. The irony of the line is overwhelming, because once again Beatty is starring in a feeble, wildly overproduced comedy whose production dragged on for years and whose cost ballooned to astronomical levels. The new picture is being called the “Heavens Gate” of New Line Cinema, and it just might sink the studio, already reeling from the failure of last year’s expensive Adam Sandler bomb, “Little Nicky.”

“Town and Country” began filming in the summer of 1998, and over the course of nearly three years it’s been rewritten, reshot and re-edited so many times, and its release date pushed back so often, that people actually began wondering whether it would ever appear. (At the press screening, when it didn’t start on time some began to snicker that the showing was being indefinitely delayed.) It finally unspooled, but two hours later it wasn’t clear why: sitting through it, it’s hard to imagine that whatever was replaced during three years of tinkering could have been any weaker than what remains. The picture is a frail, disjointed farce about musical beds centered on two couples, Porter and Ellie and their closest friends Griffin and Mona (Garry Shandling and Goldie Hawn). They’re all wealthy Manhattanites, apparently blissful in their lives, but it transpires that Griffin, an antique dealer, has been caught cheating on Mona, who promptly undertakes divorce proceedings. Before long Porter has his fling with Alex, and then moves on to a passionate tryst with none other than Mona; he’s also eventually pursued by a kooky Idaho gal named Auburn (Jenna Elfman) and a randy rich bitch named Eugenie (Andie MacDowell) who turns out to have wacky parents (Charlton Heston and Marian Seldes)–he’s a wild-eyed gun nut who’s overly protective of his daughter, and she’s a foul-mouthed old broad who careens about in a jet-powered wheelchair. Ellie finds out and sues for divorce, too. As if all this weren’t enough, Griffin goes through the whole movie trying unsuccessfully to reveal that he’s gay, and we’re also supposed to care about the pallid Stoddard children Tom (Josh Hartnett–the beginning credits are so out-of-date they bill him as Joshua) and Holly (Katherine Towne), both of whom have “oddball” live-in lovers in their parents’ apartment (as also does their maid–in the person of a wild-haired, shirtless Hispanic named Alejandro, played by Del Zamora). The action switches abruptly at one point, it should be noted, from New York to Sun Valley, where Porter and Griffin take an “Odd Couple” trip for apparently no better reason than so that Beatty can dress up in a Polar Bear outfit and Shandling an Elvis impersonator’s duds for a Halloween party. But absolutely everyone is brought back together for a chaotic climax at an EastCoast awards ceremony where coincidences abound and final revelations occur.

If all this sounds a mess in print, rest assure the movie is far worse. It lurches from episode to episode without any comic rhythm and barely a laugh; the thing might have been edited in a Cuisinart (the culprits are David Moritz and Claire Simpson). The dialogue is flat and pedestrian, and elaborately-staged sequences presumably intended to recall the outlandish complexities of screwball comedy fall utterly flat (one in which both Ellie and Griffin nearly catch Mona and Porter in a compromising situation is acutely embarrassing, with Beatty forced to stumble up a flight of stairs with his trousers down to his ankles, and later hang precariously from a sun roof to avoid discovery). Here the blame must be laid squarely on Peter Chelsom, whose direction is alternately flaccid and hysterical. Matters are not helped by the cast, all of whom seem in various stages of thespian distress. Beatty, with a perpetually hangdog expression and shambling gait, looks worn-down and beaten; it’s simply incomprehensible that lookers like MacDowell, Elfman and Kinski would be drawn to somebody who’s such a drag. Keaton is stiff as a mannequin–it’s hard to believe she was once so fine an actress–and Hawn is reduced to doing the shrill, deer-in- the-headlights shtick she used to resort to on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” Shandling is a master of reaction shots and has a few bright throwaway lines, but even he can’t save the lame can’t-quite-come-out-of-the-closet subplot. MacDowell, Kinski and Elfman all overdo things grostesquely, but MacDowell is surely stuck with the worst role among them. As for Heston and Seldes, one can only feel compassion for what the script puts them through. Under the circumstances it’s surprising that one of the writers, Buck Henry, was willing to make a cameo appearance as a smarmy lawyer; it’s even more shocking that one of the lines he’s given himself is the query “Did I say something funny?” to which Ellie responds quite accurately in the negative. (She might have added that Henry didn’t pen much that was funny, either.) To complete the roster of inadequacies, there’s an insufferably perky score by Rolfe Kent. William A. Fraker’s cinematography, however, is lush and lovely; the picture may be a jerky, mirthless bore, but it’s well shot.

The advertising blurb that the New Line PR department has come up with for “Town and Country” is that it’s “a comedy about men who do stupid things, and women who get even with them.” The guys mentioned in the first half of the line obviously include those responsible for making this movie; and as for the second part, it will have to be expanded to include all those audience members who will wisely stay away from the boxoffice in droves. Like “Ishtar,” this sadly overpriced disaster will undoubtedly bring but a slight return on its staggering investment of talent, time and cash. For those who do attend, though, New Line might be well advised to provide complimentary barf bags of the sort Ms. Hawn employs in one airplane scene. They just might come in handy.