A Couple of Clowns

Box of Moonlight
Directed and written by Tom DiCillo. Starring John Turturro, Sam Rockwell, Catherine Keener, Lisa Blount, Annie Corely, Alexander Goodwin, and Dermot Mulroney. At the Embarcadero in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

When Time magazine columnist Walter Shapiro referred to himself last month as part of a generation that still believes “A Thousand Clowns holds all the secrets to human existence,” I thought he must be daft. Yes, high school students took Herb Gardner's hit comedy about an urban dropout (played by Jason Robards) as Holy Writ when the movie premiered in 1965. But surely they'd gag on its soft, joke-riddled version of middle-class revolt if they sampled it today. (When advised to “return to reality,” Robards replies, “I'll go in only as a tourist.”) Even at the time of its original release, Pauline Kael recognized that the movie peddled “romantic crackpotism — harmless American nonconformity. The hero's idea of freedom was to wander in Central Park with a kid and make TV-style jokes about TV before going back to do it for money. Basically, it was about as nonconformist as Mom's apple pie.”

But A Thousand Clowns teems with grit, passion, and invention compared with Tom DiCillo's Box of Moonlight — a '90s version of a crackpot jamboree. In this manic yet tepid idyll, an uptight electrical engineer named Al (John Turturro), with the help of a youthful backwoods kook called the Kid (Sam Rockwell), masters a midlife crisis during a July Fourth weekend; then he returns to suburbia and his real kid and a wife who should have dumped him years ago.

Near the start, the rural power project Al and his crew are working on gets canceled in midsteam. By then, the engineer has had a hallucination or two, sighted his first gray hair, and developed the sinking feeling that his men hate him. Phoning his wife to say that the job is right on schedule, he takes the six-day gap before his scheduled trip home to find a pastoral spot from his childhood — a lake with an enormous slide.

The lake is ruined, but 'round and about he runs into a flirtatious waitress, a couple of religious fanatics, and the Kid, who ultimately cracks his shell. The back cover of the published script, released by Faber and Faber, puts it this way: Al's “chance encounter with a young dropout, dressed in a purloined Davy Crockett outfit, changes his life irrevocably and rescues Al's humanity. Like one of the characters in Shakespeare's Arcadian comedies, Al enters the forest and is transformed.” Perhaps if you take away the comic complications, the verbal poetry, and the array of characters from Shakespeare's Arcadian comedies, you might get something like Box of Moonlight.

The movie is actually more like several Twilight Zone episodes crammed into one: It replays the essential Rod Serling saga of a man going semicrazy before he realizes he should escape the corporate rat race. DiCillo's movie is as full of visual gimmickry as any Twilight Zone — Al sees things happening in reverse, such as coffee pouring back into a pot — and it's replete with narrative coincidences too, such as Al dialing a disastrous phone-sex operator who turns out to be a shy, sweet woman named Floatie. (She and her frisky sister, Purlene, bring some fleeting love-play to Al and the Kid's domain.)

With his penchant for filching everything from tomatoes to plaster gnomes, and an estate comprised of half a mobile home decked out with Christmas lights, random junk, and lawn furniture, the Kid supposedly appeals to the adolescent anarchist in all of us. Instead he rouses the fed-up adult. If his antics were lyrically comic, or at least spry and airy, who'd complain? Unfortunately, the Kid leads Al into high jinks that are inept slapstick at best, symbolic gestures at worst — such as shooting out the windows of the uncompleted power plant.

A movie like Box of Moonlight should be buoyant. But DiCillo's script contains no memorable quips or kicky role reversals (at least A Thousand Clowns had the wit to make its grown-up a kook and its kid look middle-aged dour). What's worse, its brand of nonconformist rebellion amounts to a form of therapy, something to relax a hard-working man before he settles in for the long haul. Despite its shaggy appearance, Box of Moonlight provides an utterly rote experience, like the flashcards that Type A-plus old Al keeps pushing on his 8-year-old son.

From the moment Al clenches his face and berates his power-systems crew for playing tapeball at 4:45 p.m. instead of laboring right up to 5 o'clock, this film sinks and never bobs to the surface. How can a reawakening work on-screen when the actor who undergoes it can't suggest any fun or feeling lying dormant in the first place? A couple of years back, Turturro was splendid in a similar role in Diane Keaton's Unstrung Heroes. As an eccentric inventor with two young kids and an ailing wife, he was brilliant at conveying how the man channeled love of family into frenzied research; because of Turturro's depiction of displacement, his climactic moments of emotional transparency were genuine and moving. In this film, Turturro doesn't even seem naturally joyless. Al's transformation from family and power-systems tyrant to sensitive male isn't dramatized, it's merely stated — and Turturro's performance isn't so much felt-out as willed.

Maybe Turturro felt the pressure of playing against an actor who's positioned to be Mr. Hang-Loose. The Kid is an affable space cadet, and it's probably a minor feat for Sam Rockwell that most of the time he resists falling into airhead mannerisms. But DiCillo wants us to see the Kid as the soul of American innocence, even though he can't hold his own with characters who give off a whiff of experience — whether it's Dermot Mulroney as a townie with a huge burn scar and a fear of matches, or Catherine Keener and Lisa Blount as those ill-used small-town gals Floatie and Purlene.

The Kid proclaims, with incongruous hipness, that he's “off the grid.” Al, of course, has both feet on the grid. But it's the people with one foot on and one foot off who give the film any comic or dramatic traction. DiCillo, who explored even stranger realms of whimsy in his debut fiasco, Johnny Suede, may be the worst judge of his own gifts. He hankers after poetic goofiness without having the faintest knack for it: His fables are like laborious watercolors with all the pencil sketch-marks showing through. His nightmare farce about low-budget moviemaking, Living in Oblivion, showed off his potential as a realistic satirist. But even that patchy lampoon of industry types teetered toward preciosity. It hit home mostly to festival fans used to enduring misfires like Johnny Suede — or, alas, Box of Moonlight.

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