Movie Review: Box of Moonlight

© 1997 Dan Heller

Quick Review: Odd and quirky, but extremely rewarding story about a man who ultimately finds himself after an unintended road trip.

Synopsis: Al (John Turturro), an anal-retentive electrical engineer, finds a grey hair, and he suddenly feels lost in life, longing eagerly to turn back the clock to the simpler, happier times of his youth. The construction job he's working on is unexpectedly terminated before a Fourth of July weekend, so rather than return home, he takes an impulsive detour to find an amusement park by a lake where he once played as a kid. He finds it, but the local industrial park has polluted the water too badly to use it. Disappointed and willing to let go of his desire to find his youth again, he begins to return home, but runs into Kid (Sam Rockwell), a recluse and opposite of Al. The time they spend together draws out longer and longer, which leads to several days in a half-built trailer junk yard. Al's straight-laced attitude meets head-on with Kid's youth, naivete, and childlike approach to life, but both benefit from one another in the end.

Review: Writer-director Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion) has a quirky style, but basically hits the nail on the head with realistic and touching development of his characters. Full of details and symbolism, Box of Moonlight is rich with healthy doses of interesting and often humorous momentos, continuously reminding us of the freightening notion of growing old as a lost and hopelessly rigid individual.

The best value of this movie is found in a realistic development of Al's progression of 1) awareness of himself, 2) the challenge of letting go of his rigid qualities, 3) and the final acceptance of a new paradigm into his actions as a husband and father in his personal life at home. These steps are not glossed over lightly, and we can feel the struggle with him as he vascillates between his typical self and the much looser qualities that Kid posesses. Many events take place that contribute to the turning of his new leaf; these are either humorous or touching, but all symbolically deal with the same surreal issue: chill out, Al.

Al thinks he understands life, which he proudly pontificates to himself by creating his "meaning of life" quotes, which he time-stamps with the date and time, which are set by his watch. The quotes start off as somewhat cliche as expected, but end up irratic and silly. Yet, they somehow now have some level of profoundness as his experiences get progressively weirder.

Some of the symbolism of the movie relates the concept of driving to the meaning of life. Indeed, one of Al's quotes is that life is like a drive along the road. Sure: road movies tend to be about the road of life. He rents a car from the Circle Rent-a-Car Company, whose logo is two arrows pointing back towards one another, creating a circle. In keeping with the driving theme, he starts his drive by facing a set of road signs pointing North, South, East and West, all with arrows in all directions, up, down, left, right and diagonally. The first time he sees the signs, he's confused about which direction is the right road, but in the end, he realizes (and states) that he's been driving in circles all this time, not getting anywhere. On his final trip home, he meets up with the same set of road signs, but this time, he knows exactly where he's going.

Similar symbolism can be found throughout the movie, and they add tremendous flavor to the spirit and theme without being overbearing.

Another aspect of the film is an underlying tone of "danger" that seems to exist in every action and in every character, leading you to believe that a disaster is impending. While Al tends to be quite naive about people and other social things, he's mostly oblivious to these danerous undertones, but we observers are acutely aware of it. I'm not sure how I feel about this: if he were more aware of it, maybe he wouldn't learn what he did, but then why have the dangerous tone in the first place? Or, since he's not aware of it, how does it contribute to his learning process? If it's for our benefit (as the audience), does it suggest that having a Mr. Magoo oblivion has its inherent benefits: "don't worry, be happy?" Or, does it really suggest that there never was any danger at all, and that sensing it is the director's way of telling us that we need to loosen up? Curious.

The "box of moonlight" that the movie's title refers to is explained nicely in the end, leaving you with full resolution on all the issues raised.

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