There are movie columns that come free from the neon-lighted glare of the multiplex lobby, from the sweet smell of a thousand spilled kernels of stale popcorn. This is one of them. In June of 1995, I'm at my desk, looking at the blinking cursor on the computer screen before me, trying to think of a way to start my review of the film version of The Bridges of Madison County when, all at once, with an intense, arrowlike certainty that's rare in this life, it hits me: The book, the book, start off with the book . . . It might be comforting to believe that Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County was intended as a parody of some kind, but no parodist's blade was ever quite so keen. Even Swift, were he alive today, couldn't keep a straight face all the way through this little book's solemnly inept prose, its endless pages of cosmic dithering and men's-movement preening.

I would highly recommend The Bridges to anyone. Either you'll buy into it, which a number of intelligent people tell me is a transcendent experience, or you'll split your sides--it has more laughs than any two Dave Barry volumes. You can even play parlor games with the text, such as trying to pick out Waller's most syntactically challenged sentence. I remain stumped by the choice between " . . . in fact, I doubt if few men have ever done anything more difficult than that" and "Robert Kincaid taught me what it was like to be a woman in a way that few women, maybe none, will ever experience." Ed Wood, be not proud.

In brief, which is all that's required, The Bridges is the story of a four-day fling in 1965 between a restless farm wife named Francesca and a photographer named Robert Kincaid who's visiting the small Iowa town where she lives. She's an Italian war bride; he's on assignment for National Geographic, shooting the covered bridges for a feature.

He stops to ask for directions one day while her husband and kids are away at a state fair. The two of them have an intense affair, but when he asks her to run away with him, she stays for the sake of her family. He leaves, too decent and noble to ruin her life.

In structure, it's the classic love-'em-'n'-leave-'em fantasy of the compulsively independent man who wants the memory of a perfect romance more than he wants the romance itself. This fits neatly into the housewife's daydream of a diversion from drudgery which remains guilt-free because it harms no one. Can you say, "More than a year on the best-seller list?"

But this recipe for success is quite incidental to Waller's concern, which is to describe in staggering and hilarious detail how peerlessly cool a guy this photographer is. Kincaid, who, with no apparent irony, refers to himself as "the last cowboy," is a man of "incredible intensity, but controlled, metered, arrowlike intensity that was mixed with warmth and no hint of meanness." As a lover, Kincaid is " . . . a graceful, hard, male animal who did nothing overtly to dominate her yet dominated her completely, in the exact way she wanted that to happen at that moment." As an artist, he doesn't take pictures, he "makes" them ("That's the difference between Sunday snapshooters and someone who does it for a living"). Even his prowess at opening beer bottles warrants an admiring pause: "He took the Swiss Army knife . . . and flicked out the bottle opener on it, using it expertly."

In case there's any doubt about who Kincaid the character really is, Waller spells it out for us in his preface: " . . . at the end of my travels, I felt I had, in many ways, become Robert Kincaid." That preface is psychologically telling in general. Much of it is pre-emptive: "In an increasingly callous world we all exist with our own carapaces of scabbed sensibilities. Where great passion leaves off and mawkishness begins, I do not know. But our tendency to scoff at the former and label genuine and profound feelings as maudlin makes it difficult to enter the realm of gentleness needed to understand the story . . . "

In other words, if you hoot at his book, it means that you're an asshole, not that he's a ding-a-ling.

Ah, but let us take our leave of the heady world of fine literary criticism and travel down the slopes of Parnassus to the vulgar world of the movies for a look at the film version of The Bridges, directed by Clint Eastwood, who also stars opposite Meryl Streep as Francesca. In terms of craft, modesty and intelligence, the film of The Bridges knocks Waller's "novel" on its sanctimonious ass. Which is exactly what's wrong with the film--stripped of its kitschy, campy raptures, The Bridges loses much of what made it fun.

Instead, the film is just a well-made, watchable, genteel love story with too many long scenes of the stars slow dancing. Regrettably, they're miscast--one's an icon and the other's a technical-acting specialist. Perhaps with Christopher Walken or Nick Nolte as the photographer opposite, say, Cher, the film could have been lively, but Eastwood and Streep have no sexual heat between them.

Eastwood had a bit of sex appeal in the '70s, in his Western and cop roles and as the wounded soldier in his best film, Don Siegel's The Beguiled. In The Bridges, however, he just seems like a painfully skinny old man--you almost expect Streep to offer him a bowl of soup and five bucks.

It's possible that Eastwood is called upon to say more in this film than he has in all his previous pictures put together, and he does his best to give feeling to his delivery. He's fairly likable--far more likable than the posturing hero of the book--but it's difficult to imagine a woman finding him entrancing.

As for Streep, she may never have looked better than she does in this film, with long, dark hair, a ready smile and a bit of pleasing extra flesh. But she can't resist pushing the accent too hard, so what emerges is a clich type--the Sophia Loren/Anna Magnani Earth-goddess. Her performance is skillful but mannered, so that when she gets turned on taking a bath in the same tub where Eastwood just took a shower, you need the narration to tell you that's what's going on--you don't feel it from her acting.

There isn't a great deal to say about The Bridges once the leads have been discussed. It should be said that adapter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) seemed to know what he had on his hands. He did his best to inject some wit into the dialogue, and to make Francesca a little less of a supplicant.

What should be said, however, is that Clint Eastwood is no gem of a director. He's not bad, but in recent years, he's been absurdly overrated. He has a solid pictorial eye, and he, with cinematographer Jack N. Green, finds some nice Midwestern calendar art. Apart from this, Eastwood is no more than dully competent. He manages to prevent Robert James Waller from making an ass of him, but that's the extent of his accomplishment.

The shame is that this appears to have been the only real goal of the production, because something fresh could have been made of this material. It might have been possible to use the basic outline of Waller's plot to create a poignant, touching portrait of two people so bereft of satisfaction that they see an isolated, more or less harmless infidelity as the central event of their lives.

To do this, however, would mean getting outside of Waller's sentimental endorsement of his characters' nostalgia. It would require humor and frankness, maturity and human perspective and true compassion for the emotionally impoverished. It couldn't take place in what Waller calls "the realm of gentleness," which is really the realm of making yourself believe in the nonsense that genuine, lifelong intimacy can be perfected in four days.

Beg to differ? Well, that's your right, but always remember that I'm the last of a vanishing breed of cowboy-loner movie reviewers with critical faculties of hard, arrowlike intensity. To borrow just one more self-effacing phrase from Waller's Robert Kincaid, in the world of movie reviewers, "I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.

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