"Enemies of Laughter" is an all too apt title for a would-be comedy in which everyone in it and everything about it seems willfully designed to be unfunny. It's a lifeless business about a self-pitying Gloomy Gus (David Paymer), a successful TV sitcom writer who's miserable because of his failures as a playwright and with women.

It must be said that writer Glen Merzer and director Joseph Travolta make it perfectly clear early on as to why Paymer's Paul Halpern has struck out in both cases, but never do they provide the slightest reason as to why anyone should care about this neurotic, self-absorbed nerd. The caustic wit and irony necessary to have taken Halpern and his plight to another level are wholly absent.

The centerpiece of the picture, long-winded and talky enough that the film could just as easily been titled "My Dinner With Carla," finds Halpern sharing a meal — and life experiences — with a beautiful theater director (Rosalind Chao) who is eager to direct his latest play. Despite her ample credits, Carla makes Halpern uncomfortable, and he is perversely leery of her, despite — or maybe even because of — her clear enthusiasm for his play. Long, long after most everyone else would have fled, Chao's lovely and gracious Carla at last loses all patience, telling Halpern he is "the most disgusting, cynical and depressing man I ever met!" The only question is: Why did it take her so long?

"Enemies of Laughter" is framed by Halpern's friend Sam (Judge Reinhold), a failed photographer turned film student, interviewing people in Halpern's life for a documentary on him with the purpose of exploring human suffering. Halpern is scarcely worthy of a documentary of any purpose, and nobody has anything very encouraging to say about him, including his parents (Bea Arthur and Peter Falk). Paymer and many others in a large cast are well-established players with strong credits, and they do the best they can to pump life into remorselessly glum material. "Enemies of Laughter" bears a 2000 copyright, and there's no discernible reason as to why it should not have been left on the shelf.

'Enemies of Laughter'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Some language

David Paymer ... Paul Halpern
Judge Reinhold ... Sam
Rosalind Chao ... Carla
Peter Falk ... Mr. Halpern
Bea Arthur ... Mrs. Halpern

An Outrider Pictures presentation. Director Joseph Travolta. Producer Rich Salvatore. Executive producers Marc Sferrazza, Carmen Miller, Ray Gaspard, Glen Merzer. Screenplay Glen Merzer. Cinematographer Kristian Berner. Editor Wil Wuorinen. Music Chris White. Costumes Lexi Nikitas. Production designer Joe Lemmon. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, Beverly Boulevard at Fairfax Avenue, (323) 655-4010. Filmmaker Joseph Travolta will participate in a question-and-answer session following today's 7:45 p.m. screening.