`Fried Green Tomatoes' Is Sweet Mixture With Tasty Touches

XX 1/2 "Fried Green Tomatoes," with Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker, Cicely Tyson, Stan Shaw. Directed by Jon Avnet, from a script by Avnet, Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski. Cinerama. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised, due to language, subject matter. --------------------------------------------------------------- A tear-jerker in the form of a comedy-whodunit, "Fried Green Tomatoes" is a coarse, manipulative Southern-fried star vehicle of the "Steel Magnolias"/"Crimes of the Heart" school.

It's all over the place, trying to cover every base as it delivers its neon-style message: Nothing is more important than friendship. Indeed, it's so busy pushing buttons that it rarely has time to settle down to establish even one relationship that rings true - by and large, we have to take the actors' word for it - yet fans of this cast probably won't mind too much.

Even non-devotees won't be bored. When a group of actors this gifted and lively tries so good-naturedly to deliver such an obvious message, the audience is left in the position of trying to stop a tidal wave. You may hate yourself for responding, but you're smothered before you know it.

The director, Jon Avnet, has cast the two most recent Oscar winners for best actress in the central roles. Kathy Bates ("Misery") plays a sweet but unhappily married Alabama lady who gorges on candy bars, and Jessica Tandy ("Driving Miss Daisy") is a nursing-home patient who befriends her by telling her a long, tall tale that has some relation to Tandy's own past.

Bates and Tandy have been nominated for Golden Globes for their performances in this broadly played story, which is set in the present. But the movie is essentially carried by two lesser-known actresses who appear only in Tandy's more lyrical flashbacks.

Mary Stuart Masterson is especially fine as Idgie, the determined tomboy who saves her best friend from an abusive husband while battling the Ku Klux Klan, male chauvinists, segregation and a determined lawman who wants to know what's happened to the missing husband. Mary-Louise Parker fulfills the promise of her wry work in "Longtime Companion" with her performance as Ruth, the gentle, pregnant wife who follows the path of her biblical namesake, packs her bags and decides to go wherever Idgie goes.

Based on Fannie Flagg's 1987 novel, "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," the screenplay is credited to Flagg, Avnet and (in some of the publicity) Carol Sobieski. It marks the big-screen directorial debut of Avnet, a veteran producer ("Risky Business") who directed Farrah Fawcett and the late Colleen Dewhurst in the 1986 TV movie, "Between Two Women."

This writing-directing team has none of the finesse or sophistication of the people who made "Rambling Rose," which demonstrated how to handle this kind of story. Avnet allows Bates to overact outrageously, especially in the opening scenes, and the script is full of unnecessary and essentially dishonest moments. Especially crude are the shocker ending, a stupid courtroom episode and a couple of mean-spirited scenes in which we're allowed to assume that someone has died, only to discover that the filmmakers were, uh, just kidding.

Still, Bates does get a chance to slip some starch and subtlety into her character as the story progresses, and Tandy, using no makeup and looking every one of her 82 years, provides spellbindingly vibrant testimony to the fact that age cannot wither her. "Fried Green Tomatoes" is very much a mixed grill, but it does have its tasty touches.