Robert Downey Jr. gives a superb performance that has "Oscar" written all over it as Charlie Chaplin in the new biographical film "Chaplin," by director Richard Attenborough ("Gandhi," "Cry Freedom").

Unfortunately, the film itself is less successful, a superficial skimming of the life and times of the great comedian and innovative film-maker. In fact, so much time is spent on Chaplin's self-destructive penchant for young girls that it might as well have been titled "Chaplin and His Women."

Still, Downey's surprisingly dead-on impersonation of Chaplin is an absolute knockout and well worth the price of admission. (Be advised, however, that unlike Chaplin's own pictures, this is far from a family film and contains quite a bit of female nudity.)

The film is told in flashback to the fictional editor (Anthony Hopkins) who is working with the aged Chaplin on his autobiography in the early '60s.

But the real story begins in England just before the turn of the century as we see 5-year-old Charlie volunteer to take the stage when his singer-mother has a breakdown (Geraldine Chaplin, very impressive as her own grandmother). This is his first triumph,and the audience wildly applauds his brief song routine.

There follows his discovery as a teen of his uncanny, innate ability to perform hilarious slapstick comedy. And by the time he reaches adulthood, he's a headliner on the English music hall circuit.

Eventually, he's off to America on a vaudeville tour,and when he's spotted by slapstick "flicker" comedy king Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd), Hollywood beckons. This is right after the birth of the movies, of course, and Chaplin helped invent and reinvent the medium, though we see little of that. (In fact, the early moviemaking procedure is ridiculously over-implified.)

We do see him putting together some of his classic films (he even escapes to Salt Lake City to edit "The Kid" in a funny sequence) and some of his relationships with the Hollywood elite are depicted, in particular his friendship with Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline).

But the film is really about all those women and his unhappy mar-iages and his mistreatment at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover, ultimately resulting in his expulsion from the country. It's rapidly paced soap opera blended with classic comedy. There should have been more comedy.

More to the point, what's missing is Chaplin's genius at work. If ever there was a story that lent itself to demonstrating the creative process, this is it.

Attenborough does throw in some allusions to the inspirations for specific routines that found their way into his films — the ballet with the globe in "The Great Dictator," the dance of the rolls in "The Gold Rush" and even the walk adopted for his Little Tramp character. However, his legendary perfectionism and endless rehearsals are absent, his workaholism being represented strictly by his work in the editing room. And his contributions to the art of film are overlooked completely. Not to mention the keen competition he felt with his contemporaries — Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and his old English music hall comrade, Stan Laurel.

Instead, the film concentrates on the downside of his personal life, the tragedy of the man behind the pancake makeup and tiny mustache. And that, unfortunately, puts "Chaplin" in the same class as dozens of other cheesy film biographies, trying to cover too much ground and ultimately revealing far too little. (The many star cameos are also an unwieldy distraction since most are given little to do.)

Still, there is Downey, whose remarkable talent has only been hinted at heretofore. If this performance doesn't put him at the top of the heap, there is no justice.

And there is one more thing. If this picture prompts any young people to seek out Chaplin's films (glimpsed throughout and in the final sequence), it's more than worth the effort.

"Chaplin" is rated PG-13, which seems a bit tame considering the amount of female nudity and the use of Hollywood's favorite cuss word a couple of times.