There's one sure-fire way to get your movie overwhelming publicity and win large portions of the creative and critical communities over to your side - create the impression that your film is fighting a battle against censorship and repression.

Which is exactly what's happened with director Adrian Lyne's "Lolita," the made-as-a-theatrical film that's making its national debut Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.The film was completed more than two years ago but was unable to find an American distributor. And that led to the hue and cry about censorship and repression.

And, no doubt, the film's subject matter - a 37-year-old man having an affair with 14-year-old girl - scared some potential distributors off. But there's another, more simple reason.

"Lolita" is not a very good movie.

For two hours, it's so slowly paced it's often downright dull. That is, when it's not unintentionally funny.

Top that off with a horrifically violent conclusion in the final 15 minutes that may cause the weak-stomached to lose their lunches, and, well, a cinematic masterpiece it isn't.

Were it not for the controversy, "Lolita" would probably have disappeared without a trace long ago.

The fact is that, yes, "Lolita" was released with little controversy in Europe. It's also a fact that the movie attracted little in the way of paying customers. Which speaks to the quality of the film.

And, of course, the fact that this movie cost an astounding $60 million to make (you certainly don't see that money on the screen) undoubtedly scared off a number of distributors who normally don't care what they put out there as long as they make a profit. Fear of losing money is the greatest Hollywood censor of them all.

"Lolita," based on Vladimir Nabakov's 1954 novel, is the tale of Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons), a 37-year-old professor who leaves his native England in 1947 to work and write in America. He rents a room from an attractive widow (Melanie Griffith) and immediately falls completely and compulsively in lust with her 14-year-old daughter, Lolita (Dominique Swain).

Lolita is more than a bit of a sexual predator herself - albeit an extremely young one - and she and Humbert are soon involved in a cross-country trip/wanton sexual affair.

As has been the case since Nabakov first tried (and failed) to have his novel published in America and with Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film, there is plenty of controversy over the subject matter here. While the on-screen portrayal of the affair is quite restrained, the fact is that a young girl is being held up as a sex object.

(Swain was 15 when she made the movie.)

And there is the occasional scene - like when Lolita suggestively devours a banana - that are so over-the-top they're ridiculous.

That grotesquely violent conclusion features full-frontal nudity of Frank Langela (as pedophile Clare Quilty) as he tries desperately to escape his killer. Which, of course, he doesn't - he eventually expires after blood has been spattered about in a most revolting manner.

It's as if Lyne kept himself under control for more than two hours of the film before suddenly saying, `Hey, I'm Adrian Lyne. I've got to do something grotesque and disturbing or no one will realize this is my film."

Lyne acknowledges that the film is "erotic," but adds, "I don't think for a movie to be erotic you have to see acres of flesh. I think, to be absolutely honest, the imagination is usually better than being confronted with it."

Not only is that an interesting point of view coming from the director of movies like "Nine 1/2 Weeks," "Fatal Attraction" and "Indecent Proposal," but Lyne goes on to prove how hypocritical he is by telling critics that he spent "six weeks with an attorney in the cutting room" trying to make the movie conform to American laws that prohibit child pornography. And that's the only reason he cut out shots of a nude body double, because the law also prohibits using adults to portray children in sex acts.

Both Lyne and screenwriter Stephen Schiff (a staff writer and critic at The New Yorker Magazine) decried the culture that they said made it hard to release "Lolita" in the United States.

"I think that, in the last five or six years, the climate has changed enormously in this country," Lyne said. "I think, for example, in the '80s or the '70s this movie would have been released without problem."

He pointed to incidents like the murder of JonBenet Ramsey and child killings in Belgium that have made people "much more aware of the problem."

And Schiff agreed, adding that, "society, in some ways, has contracted, has shrunk. This is kind of a litmus test."

"We're certainly a culture of fear now. We're very, very jumpy. (We're a) `keep it in the dark, maybe it will go away' kind of culture. And so I think that's a sad thing and I think that is part of the reason for the furor."

Which is a nearly totally misreading of the situation. What they're missing is that American society has indeed become more aware of the problem of child abuse and sexual abuse and less tolerant of it. And, while that may have created a less hospitable atmosphere for a movie like "Lolita," how can anyone argue that this is a bad thing?

What's so hideously annoying about all of this is the attitude of the filmmaker - and his apologists in the media - that anyone who doesn't embrace "Lolita" is some sort of stunted, provincial fool. That they know what art is and anyone who disagrees is a hay-chewing rube.

Their audacity is exceeded only by their own tunnel vision. They who point an accusing finger are the ones who fail to see the big picture of "Lolita."

And, by making it a cause celebre, they fail to acknowledge that the film is, at best, a mediocre remake.

Note: After being purchased by Showtime, "Lolita" found an American distributor in the Samuel Goldwyn Co. It will be seen in a limited, one-week release in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for - believe it or not - Oscar consideration.