There was a time in movie-making history where an ensemble cast of talented, funny actors made for a good comedy. Even if the story was preposterous, the dialogue lame or the subject matter tasteless, at least one bright, under-appreciated star would make seeing such a film worthwhile. Sadly, this era is gone, a fact rubbed in the viewer’s face by the new “comedy,” “Saving Silverman.”

Starring Jason Biggs, Amanda Peet, Jack Black and Steve Zahn, one would think at least one of these skilled comedians would succeed in being entertaining despite the aimless narrative and lackluster directing of this movie. Amazingly, this does not happen.

Perhaps it is the tired plot. Darren, Wayne and J.D. are childhood buddies, as the brief prologue tells us, bound together by their loyalty, poor skills with women and obsessive love for Neil Diamond. Adulthood finds Darren, played by Biggs, a sensitive and easily dominated social coordinator at an old folks’ home. Wayne and J.D. are equally one-dimensional paragons of under-achievement. Zahn’s Wayne is a mildly sociopathic, self-employed pest exterminator; J.D., played by the gregarious Jack Black, who is most well-known for his role as a belligerent record store worker in “High Fidelity”, is a graduate of the Subway (sandwich) University. They play together in a Diamond cover band, “Diamonds in the Rough” and bemoan their dismal sex lives.

Enter Judith, played by Amanda Peet of “The Whole Nine Yards” and the WB’s “Jack and Jill.” Her virulently heartless psychologist is even more flat than Darren, Wayne and J.D. She is so purely evil, so calculating a dominatrix, that it’s difficult to find a reason why Darren should be devoted to her. Even worse, she claims not to believe in premarital sex and hands Darren a bottle of moisturizer and a porn magazine after he pleasures her to “satisfy his needs.” Sure, she’s “the queen of all hotties.” But as Wayne and J.D. quickly discover, she manhandles Darren, making him her puppet and herself his unfeeling puppet-master. Although some consider her the next Julia Roberts, Peet exudes zero charm and the costumer’s decision to dress her in bizarre, low-cut, designer-looking clothes only magnifies her shallowness instead of adding to her sex appeal.

The story really starts to move when Wayne and J.D., driven to the brink by Darren’s escalating involvement with Judith and his complete lack of a spine while she orders him around, decide to kidnap the harpy and save their friend. While she’s held hostage in their garage, J.D. and Wayne set Darren up with his high school crush, a woman he cheesily referred to as his “one and only someone” earlier in the film. Predictably, the plot thickens when Darren’s former unrequited love, Sandy, announces she is joining a convent in a week’s time.

Wayne and J.D.’s bumbling crime spree and Darren’s feeble attempt to work out his love life now that he believes Judith is dead comprise the rest of the storyline. The subsequent hour is filled with one tasteless, unfunny joke after another as the movie pokes fun at Indians, Chinese people, nuns and the whole of Thailand, all the while steering clear of any real laughs.

This shortcoming can be explained by the characters themselves. Since none of the actors bring any depth or humanity to their roles, the numerous sight gags fall short and the jokes come out insincerely. Even Black, whose impeccable comic timing and hard-edged inanity were so successful in “High Fidelity,” is restricted by the weaknesses of the script. His fleeting humorous moments are downsized by subsequent dialogue that simply tries too hard to be zany and ends up somewhere around pathetically un-amusing.

The moments of humor that do stand out have their merits. During one of Judith and Wayne’s back and forth name-calling fits, he retorts with “stealer of my friend!” to her accusation of his frequent masturbatory habits. Zahn’s portrayal of the assertive yet misdirected member of the friend-rescuing duo is often suggestive of comedy. When he hits Judith with his tranquilizer gun in front of a police station, he quickly covers her body with a blanket and explains to an officer that it is the dangerous escaped goat from the zoo, this reviewer came close to a chuckle. It’s hard, though, to see skilled comedians like Zahn shine in smaller roles in films like “Reality Bites” and “That Thing You Do” and fail to meet the challenge of a principal part in “Silverman.”

The redeeming qualities of “Saving Silverman” are obviously few — not nearly enough to justify spending $8.25 on this movie. However, admittedly, I can’t rule out going to a future project featuring Zahn, Black, Biggs or Peet, despite their poor showings here. One can’t overestimate the power of attractive, or at least comically appealing, actors in well-promoted movies. In this case, however, you would do best to fight the magnetic power of the ads, posters and trailers and save yourself.