WHEN IT COMES TO getting depictions of diversity onscreen, I'll bet Hollywood feels it has a piece of luck in Rupert Everett. Handsome, urbane, and blessed with razor-sharp timing, he must be the Great Gay Hope to a town eager to make a buck off of whatever commercial sentiment audiences are willing to extend to homosexuals. He's a man capable of making even Middle American housewives moist and giggly with frustrated desire, which is surely Item #2 on some executive memo "To Do" list (just behind "Assure 18- to 25-year-old males of their divine birthright"). The movies, for the most part, like things easy, and men who love other men are, let's face it, difficult. As a couple of failed March releases show, whether the Men Who Dare Not Speak Their Name appear in Tinsel Town products or meditative indie efforts, the results, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, run the gamut of emotions from A to B.

Everett, the man who casually slipped My Best Friend's Wedding into his dapper breast pocket, is back in another would-be commercial attempt to tell America how funny and sincere gay men are. In The Next Best Thing, he and Madonna play, respectively, gay and straight best friends who have sex one terribly unlikely, drunken night, then accidentally reproduce and end up in jealous custody hearings after Benjamin Bratt appears and decides he'd like to wed the Material Girl. You know Hollywood discards its royalty when director John "I swear I won an Oscar for Midnight Cowboy" Schlesinger is behind all this.

The best that can be said for Madonna (who, to the constant, affectionate dismay of every loyal devotee like myself, still can't act) is that she's lost some of her remoteness. Whenever she's not speaking she's still standing around like a dazed prisoner of war awaiting enemy commands, but Everett seems to relax her a bit -- he's the giddy, generous Julia Roberts to her self-involved Richard Gere. Unfortunately, their movie makes Runaway Bride look like The Battleship Potemkin. The usually reliable Everett is forcing it here, and just barely at that. He cracks a few jokes, but once the "fun" ends, he spends a lot of time looking vexed and unnerved, as though he were smelling something intensely stinky (he is).

The Next Best Thing comes on like a coy 1920s bedroom farce that's been slipping away for a quickie every now and then with some tired, ennobled, '80s movie-of-the-week. Thomas Ropelewski's woeful script places homosexuals and their friends on a very colorful, entirely different planet -- a place much-touted in movies that has never really existed, where AIDS and a lack of sex are the only human concerns. There are two kinds of gay men in the world of The Next Best Thing: those who are Rupert Everett, and those who know all the words to Annie Get Your Gun. Guess which ones are presented as ideal? Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, for the love of God) shows up as a man whose partner has died of AIDS. He's quickly making expositional pronouncements of gay grief in a manner that indicates he'll soon be in People magazine, discussing how fearless it was for him to appear in a movie sporting moussed hair and an earring.

A collection of 10 French shorts bookended by two nondescript English-language offerings, Love Reinvented doesn't fare much better as crucial gay filmmaking. The extremely brief French efforts were commissioned to deal with HIV-related issues, and they show it. Philippe Faucon's All Is Not Black, the exception, shows a playful day in which a broke young man treats his beloved to caviar. Also, Marion Vernoux's touching Inside has a nice performance from Eric Carravaca as an AIDS patient listing his regrets to the outside world. However, are homosexuals really so starved to see ourselves represented in cinema that a program of arthouse public service announcements is considered worthy of big-screen viewing? Yes, HIV is still an issue -- and at least characters in indie films actually have sex (which is off-limits for someone of Everett's standing) -- but the bulk of Love Reinvented feels as secondhand as the Schlesinger film. AIDS is already such a part of our consciousness, that to continue to treat it in such a pristine, didactic manner makes it feel as commercial as Madonna's cover of "American Pie."

"Pop music provides immediate emotional gratifications that the subtler and deeper and more lasting pleasures of jazz can't prevail against," über film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, both dissing and praising the appeal of popular entertainment. "Pop drives jazz back underground." The problem with depictions of gays onscreen is that there has never really been a sustained jazz movement to drive them back underground. It's all pop, with the more vital and complex rhythms of gay life still waiting for virtuosos to come out and play.