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Director Tom DiCillo nearly captures some backwoods magic realism with Box of Moonlight.

By Coury Turczyn

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  There comes a time in every movie critic's life when he or she must make that momentous decision: Am I for magic realism or am I against it? Box of Moonlight--director Tom DiCillo's paean to self-discovery shot right here in our neck of the woods--brings this troubling quandary to a head.

On one hand, when used properly by experienced professionals (Fellini and, uh...), magic realism can be an imaginative shift in traditional narrative, launching the viewer into more symbolic realms that can't be defined with mere dialogue. On the other hand, when mishandled by directors who should know better (Fellini and, uh, just about everybody else) magic realism can be a pretentious bit of quackery. It's a cinematic sleight of hand that's nearly impossible to pull off--how do you stage a magical moment? Just getting actors and technicians to do what they're supposed to is hard enough (as revealed in DiCillo's own Living in Oblivion). But to concoct eerie moments of nonreality that are simultaneously whimsical and believable? Oh my.

In Box of Moonlight, DiCillo hits the magic realism bullseye almost as much as he misses it. The result is an enjoyable little movie that doesn't often get made these days--one that proposes to look at how we perceive our own identities and how that perception can shift under the right conditions (unsettling omens, wacky sidekicks, etc.). The fact that DiCillo achieves this without any sort of treacle dripping into the narrative is to be applauded--but when he reaches for the mystical, it seems mostly unnecessary.

DiCillo is much more successful when he reveals offbeat moments that are only slightly skewed. The film opens with a lovely, soaring shot over some Smoky Mountain foothills, cruising through unspoiled pastoral scenes. The camera glides into some woods where we spy a fawn gracefully nibbling at the ground. As we get closer, we realize it's only a lawn ornament--a piece of man-made claptrap amid pristine natural beauty. It's a visual theme DiCillo uses to great effect (and for which the Knoxville area is perfectly apt) throughout the film, contrasting the area's rural charms with the encroaching infiltration of chain-store culture.

John Turturro plays our hero, Al Fountain, a wound-up electrical engineer who's completely uncomfortable around other people; his focus is entirely on just getting his work done. In this case, he's in a small town somewhere in the South installing a power turbine; the men he supervises can't stand him. And they shouldn't--he's uptight, humorless, and entirely lacking any sense of fun. When Al realizes this--and after he experiences a series of magic realism episodes involving things going backwards--he gets a wild hair. Instead of returning to his wife and son in Chicago after the job gets canceled early, he decides to wander around the area looking for a figment of his childhood, a recreation area called Splatchee Lake.

Along the way, he meets a local character by the name of "Kid" (Sam Rockwell) who is clearly not concerned about schedules and responsibilities--he wears the same Davy Crockett outfit every day, lives in a trailer missing a wall, and professes to be "off the grid" from society even as he watches Smoky Mountain Wrestling on his TV. Essentially, the rest of the movie involves Kid forcing Al into trouble-making (yet fun) activities like tomato fights and bar room brawls that loosen him up.


And it sort of works. The scenes themselves are amusing, and while Rockwell's Kid is at first mostly irritating (like some sort of lost surfer dude) he progresses into a more fully-formed, believable character--manic, zany, yet also troubled. The problem is mostly Turturro; although he's absolutely first-rate as a bug-eyed neurotic, he's not so convincing as a laid-back sweetheart. By picture's end, he still looks nervous and jittery when he's supposed to have found a new man inside. While DiCillo's fantasy--to somehow escape the bonds we create for ourselves--may be a universal desire, Turturro is not quite the right actor to deliver that message. His character appears to be as restrained as ever, no matter how much fun he's supposed to be having.

This isn't to say Box of Moonlight isn't endearing and sincere in its own refreshing way; it is so lacking in irony that it's nearly a cleansing experience after so many years of Tarantino-esque pop culture rehash. It's just a shame that as canny as DiCillo is, he still fell into some regrettable hoakiness: A kid riding his bike backwards? Coffee flowing up to its pot? And that score by Jim Farmer--hey, you know you're in the South when you have to listen to banjo and mouthharp interludes. Once it's all over, you kind of wish it had amounted to something more.

Still, DiCillo has uncovered enough of the truly quirky to make Box of Moonlight an enjoyable, offbeat film. But as for magic realism, I'll keep renting Fellini.

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