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Middle of Nowhere

Box of Moonlight
Bill Bettencourt

The Final Frontier Men: John Turturro (left) and Sam Rockwell rediscover the joys of spontaneity in Tom DeCillo's 'Box of Moonlight'.

'Box of Moonlight' tries to find love in the hinterlands

By Richard von Busack

TOM DiCILLO'S follow-up to his satire Living in Oblivion is, indeed, oblivious. The director's contradictory feelings about the American heartland cause Box of Moonlight to vacillate between overly sweet magical realism and a rant about how the countryside is the main nesting ground of Crackpotus Americanus.

DiCillo wants to see American rural lands as a magic frontier where a too-married, too-hard-working man can rediscover himself. Then the director peoples the area with scarred ass-kickers, religious maniacs, sheriffs out of Smokey and the Bandit and conspiracy fanatics. The combination of love and revulsion can produce deeply felt art (like the Talking Heads' song "The Big Country," with its praise of Americana and its chorus "I wouldn't live there if you paid me to"). Still, DiCillo's view of the country is no clearer--or freer of received ideas--than the reveries of someone crossing the country in a jet.

As played by a sorely miscast John Turturro, Al Fountain is an unlovable martinet. When his job installing a steam turbine in the Tennessee countryside ends early, he decides to head out into the country to visit a lake he used to swim in as a child. After much searching, he finds the lake, but it has been closed because of formaldehyde pollution.

On his way home, Fountain encounters a young guy dressed like Davy Crockett who calls himself the Kid (Sam Rockwell). Circumstances force Fountain to stay with Kid at his mobile home, but what begins as happenstance ends as a vacation. Fountain stays through the July 4th holiday, rediscovering spontaneity with the Kid and his quirky acquaintances.

I agree with DiCillo's conclusion that lack of spontaneity is poison; spontaneity is one American quality that the world envies. There's poignancy in DiCillo's pregnant use of illegal fireworks as a metaphor for other forbidden pastimes (sex and drugs mostly), and Catherine Keener, who played the perplexed single woman in Walking and Talking, is charming as a shy local girl underappreciated by the locals.

Box of Moonlight, however, feels stuck in the middle of nowhere. The pleasures of a road-trip movie come from glancing at eccentric characters--not staring at them for more than an hour. The Kid in his pajamalike Davy Crockett suit is like one of the Lost Boys out of Peter Pan, and most of us outgrew that story.

The film goes beyond fancifulness into simple-mindedness. And it takes more than skinny-dipping and stealing tomatoes from a farmer's garden to unwind the likes of Turturro. This vague, edgeless fantasy--a project DiCillo has been pushing for years--contains the kind of twittery imagery that he was parodying in his previous film. The garden gnomes that the Kid likes to steal are just as hackneyed as the dream-sequence dwarf in Living in Oblivion--the one who berates the director for his use of dream-sequence dwarves.

Box of Moonlight (R; 107 min.), directed and written by Tom DiCillo, photographed by Paul Ryan and starring John Turturro and Sam Rockwell.

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From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of Metro.

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