IN HIS FIRST two films, the rock-dude satire "Johnny Suede" and the filmmaking satire "Living in Oblivion" (which drew much of its humor from a none-too-veiled skewering of "Johnny Suede" star Brad Pitt), director Tom DiCillo seemed to be carving out a niche for himself as the gentle, insider parodist of indieville. Blend equal parts Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, add a soupgon of Jim Jarmusch and baste liberally with the Coen brothers, and you have DiCillo, albeit without quite the distinctive genius of any of the other five.
Now, with his third and most ambitious film, a sweet, rambling road-to-nowhere opus called "Box of Moonlight," DiCillo sheds the black leather jacket and reveals himself to be his own man -- and that man is Frank Capra. I don't mean to be snide: Like Capra, DiCillo is a skilled and honest craftsman, respectful of his materials and the audience, seeking to cloak his conventional moralizing in carefully constructed, non-assaultive entertainment. Faced with the collection of cynics, hacks and morons who make most movies, I'll take that any day and feel grateful.
Of course DiCillo is a post-'60s American, so the values expressed in "Box of Moonlight" are not precisely those of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Imagine a Capra who had smoked a little pot in college, took a course in comparative world religions and went to school on male self-discovery movies like "Easy Rider" and "The Graduate." His Mr. Smith here is John Turturro as strait-laced electrical engineer Al Fountain, a man so repressed he rehearses casual conversations out loud before beginning them and carefully pronounces every syllable in the word "actually."
Although it was sometimes hard for me not to imagine Jimmy Stewart in the role, Turturro inhabits it with his customary full-on physicality, wearing a painful, forced smile and walking in uneasy, halting lurches. Even when the movie bogs down heavily at about the two-thirds mark, Turturro keeps it watchable. Al is a complex creation, at once appealing and repellent. He possesses both the arrogance of the managerial class (superciliously dressing down his workers for their late-afternoon horsing around; badgering his hapless son by phone about his multiplication tables) and the awkwardness of a friendless high-school science geek. Even before Al's job installing a turbine in a middle-American factory far from his Chicago home is abruptly canceled -- by his company, the unsubtly named Zeus Power Systems -- we understand that he is heading for the midlife Pause That Refreshes, that zone of low-level magic and mystery so often entered by fictional middle-aged men and so often pathetically sought by real ones. On the day Al discovers his first gray hair, he begins to notice time moving backward in discrete little increments: coffee flowing up from cup to pot; a kid riding his bike in reverse.
Rather than return home to spend the Fourth of July with his long-suffering wife and son, Al hits the road, ostensibly in search of a lake where he spent a long-forgotten childhood vacation. Despite the mixed message (become a better husband and father -- by running away!), this is where "Box of Moonlight" is at its most genuine and genial. I wanted to leap from my seat and plead with Al to sleep with the horny diner waitress, follow the gospel-preacher he meets beside a dead inland sea (although he's not really Jesus), punch out the redneck motel clerk -- anything to stop the plot from arriving at its inevitable destination.
Alas, DiCillo will be satisfied with nothing less than archetype, and the one he employs to counterbalance uptight Al is the Holy Fool, the Thoreauvian Original Man, the -- I shudder to say it -- manchild. Playing a character actually called the Kid, the agreeably goofy Sam Rockwell is forced to wear a Daniel Boone costume and pretend to inhabit a zany "off-the-grid" Tennessee hideaway where he pirates electricity (largely to watch pro wrestling on TV), deals in stolen garden statuary and eats Oreos out of a doggie bowl for breakfast. The Kid gets so much screen time, and the devices used to keep him in the story are so lame, that I fear DiCillo has forgotten a cardinal rule of comedy: Lovable eccentrics, when applied in large doses, are certified instruments of torture, and as such are banned by international treaties.
Some viewers will undoubtedly enjoy the sheer familiarity of this screwballish pairing; the Kid, of course, is here to teach Al to relax and enjoy life, while Al will suggest to him that maybe it's time to grow up a little and accept some responsibilities. Like the cast of the syndicated '70s TV show "Tom Sawyer," they go skinny-dipping at the swimmin' hole and pilfer tomatoes from a neighbor's field, outwitting the authorities at every turn. Unlike Tom and Huck, they get drunk, get beat up by rednecks and screw. No, not each other, although that might have been interesting. Instead, a randy pair of working-class blonds (Lisa Blount and Catherine Keener, both highly enjoyable) show up just in time to make sure our boys are heteros, but not so early as to wreck Al's marriage.
Speaking of which, the strange combination of treacly sentimentality and male fantasy that animates "Box of Moonlight" completely shuts out Al's wife, Deb (thankless work for Annie Corley), who's stuck waitressing and housekeeping while he's out sharpening his spear in the wilderness. As well-made as most of this movie is, its sexual politics seem curiously antique, as though it really had been made in the pre-Erica Jong era. We can only hope that Deb invited the mailman in for a zipless Fourth of July tumble while Al was away, and DiCillo didn't notice.