Coming hard on the heels of "Power," "The Imagemaker" (Beverly Center Cineplex) is another scathing, but oddly idolatrous, look at that modern bete noir of liberals: the big-time political media whiz. And it suffers even more than its higher-budgeted counterpart from a skewed approach.

There's something weird about these pictures. They don't particularly work as either melodramas or exposes--partially because some of their creators, on some level, seem infatuated with their own villains.

The idea obviously is to show the voting public it's being conned by cynics, and to catch the media wizards with their pants down. But once that's accomplished, the film makers seem overly dazzled by the Calvin Kleins underneath.

They paint these communicators as such paragons of suave cunning, superhuman seduction skills and fashion sense, they almost seem to have a crush on them. "The Imagemaker's" Roger Blackwell (Michael Louri) isn't even an anti-hero. He's a romantic lead with a few kinks, practically a semi-surrogate: a would-be movie director pitching a project. (The pitch strategy here has to rank as the barmiest in history; you doubt that anything in real life could top it.)

"Power" failed as straight drama or melodrama, but the cast was good; you sense it might have worked as a socially conscious romantic comedy. But there's no way "The Imagemaker" could be rescued. This is a story that makes your jaw drop about 15 minutes along, and keeps going until the credibility deficit matches the U.S. Treasury's.

First, we have Blackwell, the erstwhile media expert of President Richard Manning, ruined by the machinations of sexy anchorwoman Molly Grainger--who's on the payroll of the CIA. (Do you have much faith in a script with characters named Roger Blackwell, Molly Grainger and Richard Manning? They sound like the people in the movie Mia Farrow watches in "Purple Rose of Cairo.") Then we have some mysterious tapes in which President Manning cuts a deal with the Mafia. (The capo keeps calling him "President," but Manning stops short of replying, "Yes, Godfather.")

You might accept those twists. But what about Blackwell's scheme to finance his film by faking an on-camera suicide? Or his big-screen videotapes of an actress impersonating his dead first wife to allay his guilt over her suicide? Or the scene where Blackwell forces Molly Grainger to strip at gunpoint, and videotapes her--as blackmail leverage with her network? (Pure sexism: Would they pull that with Harry Reasoner?)

And how about Farley Granger's evil silver-haired ambassador and his band of bumbling hit men: all of whom seem equally intent on political assassination and forcing Blackwell out as film director? After a while, you can't decide which the movie makers think is worse: corrupting the U.S. government, cold-blooded murder or sabotaging Blackwell's movie deal.

The cast of "The Imagemaker" (Times-rated: Mature) is talented--it includes Jerry Orbach and Jessica Harper--but they probably would have found more challenging material at a celebrity sports tournament.

As for the team behind it--Marilyn and Hal Weiner--they apparently have a splendid record, with many awards for documentary and educational films. So perhaps we should assume this is just some temporary lapse--brought about by the pesticide-fouled D.C. air, or watching too many State of the Union addresses. Or even an image problem. 'THE IMAGEMAKER'

A Melvyn J. Estrin production. Producers Marilyn and Hal Weiner. Director H. Weiner. Script: H. Weiner, Dick Goldberg. Camera Jacques Haitkin. Music Fred Karns. Executive producer Melvyn J. Estrin. With Michael Nouri, Anne Twomey, Jerry Orbach, Jessica Harper, Farley Granger.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature. (Nudity, language, sexual situations.)

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