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THE ASSOCIATE - * * - Whoopi Goldberg, Dianne Wiest, Tim Daly, Eli Wallach, Austin Pendleton, Lainie Kazan; rated PG-13 (profanity, vulgarity, nudity); Carmike Flick (in Trolley Square), Plaza 5400 and Villa Theaters; Cinepalex Odeon South Towne Center Cinemas; Gateway 8 Cinemas, Reel Theaters.

Following in the footsteps of Robin Williams' "Mrs. Doubtfire" gig, Whoopi Goldberg does the cross-dressing thing in "The Associate."

If you've seen the trailers, you know the Whoopster undergoes a makeup-enhanced gender-switch in "The Associate." In her case, however, it's also a race switch. She masquerades as a white man.

The ploy is just as coy in the film as it is in the trailer, building up to the moment when we finally see Goldberg as a man. But it's a letdown, since the plastic face is so phony that it's hard to believe anyone standing next to her would believe this is a real person.

Has it really been 14 years since Dustin Hoffman pulled off "Tootsie" in a much more believable fashion? Where are all the movie makeup advancements when you need them?

Anyway, before that happens, the bulk of the film is devoted to a men-are-pigs storyline, as Goldberg discovers that she can't compete with the good-old-boys network on Wall Street, despite her remarkable talent as a financial analyst. The male-chauvinist wheelers and dealers want to do business only with other men.

So, Goldberg invents "Robert S. Cutty" as her partner, a fiction accepted by the big-wigs, despite their being unable to meet him. But she finds it difficult to keep the deception going, even with help from super-secretary Dianne Wiest.

All the predictable plot devices are here, from Goldberg having to show up as Cutty to her eventually trying to kill him off, then being arrested for his murder.

But it's not very funny. Just plodding and unimaginative.

There is, however, an unexpected moment when the film threatens to come to life, as a genius computer nerd (Austin Pendleton) begins exchanging goofy romantic glances with Wiest. They have terrific chemistry, and this brief spark suggests a wonderful subplot in the making.

But it's dropped as quickly as it's introduced.

"The Associate" certainly had potential, but like so many of Goldberg's similarly themed recent pictures - from "Sister Act" to "Eddie" - it never catches fire.

"The Associate" is rated PG-13 for profanity, vulgarity and nudity in a strip club.