Box of Moonlight (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Tom DiCillo's offbeat Box of Moonlight is a film that I wanted to like a great deal more than I actually did. DiCillo is one of those few quirky directors who loves to play with both his audience and his subject matter. Unfortunately, all the little twists, turns, and tweaks in Box of Moonlight can't eclipse the fact that it's basically nothing more than a combination mid-life crisis/buddy movie. There are number of enchanting scenes, but, in concert, they somehow fail to gel into a magical whole.

The central problem with Box of Moonlight may be that it loses its direction. This is a malady that neither of DiCillo's previous movies suffered. The film maker's first effort, Johnny Suede (starring a then-unknown Brad Pitt) possessed the same dreamlike quality evident here, but it knew exactly where it was going. Living in Oblivion, a brilliant satire of independent film making, was tightly written from beginning to end. Box of Moonlight, on the other hand, starts out strong, then starts to wander during the second half. Rather than building to a satisfying conclusion, the movie sort of fizzles out, leaving behind the impression that, even though it was a long 110 minutes, something was missing.

Box of Moonlight opens with John Turturro playing Al Fountain, the kind of uptight boss whom everyone equally despises and pities. Al, an electrical engineer "specializing in the field distribution of Zeus turbine engines," is in charge of a crew of hard-working men involved in the construction of a windshield wiper plant in Drip Rock, Tennessee. None of the guys like him -- to them, he's a machine-like clock-watcher. The group's foreman, Soapy (Ray Aranha), feels sorry for Al and invites him to a poker game, but, when the boss shows up ready to hobnob with the men, he overhears a barrage of disparaging comments that sends him scurrying back to his hotel room.

The job in Drip Rock ends abruptly, and Al finds himself alone in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. Instead of returning home to his wife and son, he decides to take a journey to Lake Splatchee, an idyllic park where he spent a wonderful summer as a child. Al's intention is to re-discover himself, but Lake Splatchee has turned into a chemical waste dump, and that further disheartens him. Then he runs into the Kid (Sam Rockwell). A freespirit with a Davy Crockett outfit (complete with coonskin cap) and a busted distributor under his hood, the Kid prevails on Al for a little automobile assistance. What starts out as a chance encounter turns into a several day odyssey that includes skinnydipping, a tomato fight, a bar brawl, and a flirtatious picnic with a phonesex girl (Catherine Keener) and her sister (Lisa Blount).

There are moments when Box of Moonlight is a joy to sit through, but the disjointed film never generates any momentum. It has its share of strange characters and odd moments, such as when Al sees things moving backwards in time (for example, water being sucked out of a glass back into the pitcher), but they don't amount to much. The movie is assembled like a series of episodes, and that's is part of the problem. DiCillo seems to be constantly changing his mind about what he wants to accomplish.

The primary goal of Box of Moonlight is to show Al's redemption through his relationship with the Kid. One is constricted by convention; the other has no respect for rules. Obviously, each has something to teach the other. It's an old plot, but DiCillo keeps it interesting. In the final third, however, two female characters are introduced, and, while they add a little spice to the proceedings, they ultimately dilute the focus. Suddenly, it's not just one damaged human being we're dealing with, but several, and DiCillo doesn't have the time to develop the potentially interesting sisters into more than half-characters.

John Turturro, who has played his share of unusual roles in unconventional films (take Barton Fink, for example), is superb. The temptation in a part like this is to go a little over-the-top and add some caricature to Al's personae. Turturro avoids the trap, remaining true to his screen identity. As a result, it requires little effort to sympathize with him. Sam Rockwell, although solid in his portrayal of the Kid, lacks his co-star's mastery. While Rockwell displays boundless energy and enthusiasm, his reading of the character isn't as deep as Turturro's. Lisa Blount and DiCillo regular Catherine Keener (Walking and Talking) are on hand in supporting roles, and Dermot Mulroney (the title character in My Best Friend's Wedding) has a two-scene cameo.

It would be hard to classify Box of Moonlight as unsuccessful, since it represents a pleasantly diverting two hours. On the other hand, given DiCillo's impressive (albeit short) track-record, I was a little disappointed by what's on-screen. In the final analysis, Box of Moonlight is a relatively standard, unambitious story with a few neat quirks, but it isn't nearly as delightful as the title indicates.

Box of Moonlight (United States, 1997)

Director: Tom DiCillo
Cast: John Turturro, Sam Rockwell, Catherine Keener, Lisa Blount, Annie Corley
Screenplay: Tom DiCillo
Cinematography: Paul Ryan
Music: Jim Farmer
U.S. Distributor: Trimark Pictures
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1997-08-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1