Even mentioning the '60s has become a cliche in the '80s.

So many movies have tried to explore the myths and mysteries of that "decade of change," one wonders exactly what screenwriter Ernest Thompson ("On Golden Pond," "Sweet Hearts Dance") had in mind with "1969," which also marks his directing debut.Especially after seeing the film.

The story concerns two small-town best friends, Robert Downey Jr. as an angry young man who experiments with drugs and generally flies in the face of any and every tradition, and Kiefer Sutherland, as a more sensitive, poetic and genuinely concerned individual.

They yearn to be hippies, though that seems to clash with their small-town upbringing, and even when they go off to college, they tend to be more loners than activists.

But, of course, they won't be able to remain that way.

The film opens with their coming home from college for a visit, clashing with Downey's eccentric single mother (Joanna Cassidy) and Sutherland's rigid, right-wing father (Bruce Dern) and head-in-the-sand mother (Mariette Hartley).

Soon after, they hit the road to experience life, though how their road trip is financed is never explained. Downey trips out, but Sutherland doesn't want to do drugs or destroy property. He just wants to see the Vietnam War stopped and for society to accept young people's "new" ideas.

But the film isn't really structured to accept much in the way of plot. It's more a series of vignettes, with Downey getting in trouble and Sutherland rescuing him, as they come in and out of their families' lives in their hometown.

Thompson's best idea is the Sutherland character, a hippie who ignores "hippie traditions," if you will, and actually embraces the hippie philosophy of individuality more strongly than any real hippies I ever knew.

But most of Sutherland's best moments are throwaways, and the character's best elements are never explored. Sutherland's is the most fully developed character, largely because of his multidimensional performance. He's an excellent actor.

Downey is also good, but his role is the most cliched and predictable of the lot. All the supporting players - and it's a fine ensemble cast - try valiantly to make something of the superficial script, but it is in vain.

Despite claims to the contrary, "1969" has the feel of a work by someone who experienced the '60s through movies and novels rather than by actually living through it.

One wonders what kind of movie this might have been if Thompson had invested as much care in his script as he did in choosing the authentic '60s music that dramatically punctuates a few too many scenes.

"1969" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drugs.