John Turturro brings vulnerability and heart to his performance as a buttoned-down clock-watcher who goes AWOL in order to free himself in the sweet-natured fable, “Box of Moonlight.” Distinguished by the same generosity that colored the characters and situations of director Tom DiCillo’s “Living in Oblivion,” this new comedy has an agreeably easy feel that goes a long way toward masking its ambling, fragile center.
Kid-glove marketing will berequired to deliver this rather whimsical piece to an appreciative audience, but a 10- to 15-minute trim of the overlong midsection might help. Straying far from the downtown New York settings of DiCillo’s past work, “Moonlight” takes place in a fictitious backwoods town peopled by bored waitresses and born-again Christians.
This spiritual road movie centers on the life-changing encounter between uptight electrical engineer Al Fountain (Turturro) and an eccentric known as Kid (Sam Rockwell), who has chosen to live “off the grid.” Away from home supervising construction of a windshield wiper manufacturing plant in remote Drip Rock, Al’s 9 p.m. call every night to his wife (Annie Corley) and son (Alexander Goodwin) in Chicago is so punctual she refers to him as Mr. Clockwork.
His construction crew keeps a distance, seeing him as a joyless robot and excluding him from their socializing. Perhaps triggered by having overheard the crew’s pitying dismissal of his regimented life, or perhaps by the discovery of his first gray hair, Al has visions of things moving in reverse, like water draining from a glass as it’s being filled or a child riding backward on a bicycle. When the job is canceled and the workers leave town, Al’s disturbed state of mind compels him to conceal the fact from his wife and stay on.
He searches for Splatchee Lake, an amusement park where he spent idyllic days as a boy. But it’s pumped full of formaldehyde from a nearby chemical plant. Driving back, he meets the patently peculiar Kid on the road with a dead engine. Al tows him back to his bizarre home in the woods, the front facade of a trailer stuffed with colorful objects. The film shifts into a looser mode as, through a series of ruses pulled by Kid, Al is forced to stick around and experience an unconstricted, almost enchanted existence. Initially disapproving of being stuck with such undisciplined company, Al gradually relaxes and learns to go where the day takes him, eventually returning to Chicago a changed man.
While it suffers from a slight central shortage of steam, the film is full of humor and charm, chaffing small-town America in Al’s brushes with oddball local yokels and in such asides as Jesus appearing to a cop in the barbecue flames of a hamburger billboard. Described by Kid as one of a world full of smart people with no common sense, Turturro’s sad, imprisoned character is made immensely likable by the actor’s skill in showing the tender side that’s been locked away by the forces of responsibility, routine and the work ethic.
His gifts as a physical performer are especially tuned here, bringing Al a jittery, wired quality that explodes into a vaguely spastic dance around a fire at one memorable point. Rockwell also puts in winning work. It seems no small achievement to sustain, as he does, such a relentlessly eccentric character, especially given the relative thinness and lack of concrete incident that weighs on that section of the film.
Other notable contributions come from Catherine Keener, playing a flaky local girl who gives Al a night of love, and Lisa Blount as her flirtatious sister. Along with Keener, who played leading roles in both DiCillo’s previous features, other “Living in Oblivion” alumni are Dermot Mulroney as a hostile grease monkey and Rica Martens as a humorless car rental clerk. The handsome Tennessee Mountains countryside locations add considerably, as does Jim Farmer’s melodic music and the work of ace production designer Therese DePrez (“Swoon,” “The Doom Generation,” “Stonewall”). Particularly effective are Al’s work site and Kid’s sprawling accommodations. Lenser Paul Ryan applies plenty of quirky camera angles to fit the material.