Buckeye Basin--the amiably skewed, half-nutty little town we're invited to in "Nobody's Fool" (selected theaters)--is the habitat of moonchildren, dreamers, and all-American gargoyles and grotesques. Even though it's supposedly set somewhere in the Southwest, the ambiance sometimes seems Deep Southern: that weird, tangy South of writers like Eudora Welty or Truman Capote, the paradise of eccentrics.

This town--as amusingly created by screenwriter Beth ("Crimes of the Heart") Henley--is a psychological pressure cooker. It boils some people in their own juices, while dreams escape from it like steam. In "Nobody's Fool," the main dreamer is Cassie (Rosanna Arquette), a headstrong young miss, who stabbed her lover Billy in the throat right after he responded to news of her pregnancy by reaffirming a belief in Buckeye Basin bachelorhood. Now, Cassie's the town's most dashing misfit. She wanders the streets in defiantly gaudy post-hippie glad rags, eyes flashing, muttering to herself.

Cassie is a Cinderella despite herself--and basically "Nobody's Fool" is the fairy-tale of how she finds her prince, and a possible happy-ever-after. Her town's bright madness is caught lovingly by cinematographer Mikhail Suslov: deserts, mountains, air shimmering over red rocky outcroppings. It's a gorgeous, poetically bughouse burg. Fittingly, Cassie's romance starts at an outdoor performance of "The Tempest"--with Ariel writhing in the tinsel--and her eventual rescuer, Riley (Eric Roberts), working the lights.

Henley wrote "Nobody's Fool" (as a screenplay called "The Moonwatcher") back in 1977, before "Crimes of the Heart." It has that anarchic spirit and defiant irreverence of many early '70s American movies--and now it seems something of an anachronism, wrenched endearingly out of context.

The dialogue often has a limber looniness: Henley's a master of left-handed wit, and her lines are full of mean-eyed compassion for life's underdogs and oddballs. "Nobody's Fool" has what many movies these days don't: a genuine, if slightly dippy, slant on life.

In "Nobody's Fool," the cynicism and idealism are all jumbled together. Though Evelyn Purcell's direction is sympathetic and lively, it sometimes seems a hair off in tone and rhythm. Purcell's style--full of witty tracking shots and deep compositions--often reminds you of Jonathan Demme's (to whom Purcell has long been both wife and co-worker). But it's not yet as controlled. The actors are fine, but--with the sole exception of Eric Roberts (and, less completely, Mare Winningham and Louise Fletcher)--they often seem to be pushing, forcing reactions. The rhythms seem slightly off--and only Roberts is enough of a movie natural to create his own. This is a good movie--particularly for a first-time feature director--and a very well-written one. But it just doesn't breathe properly.

Rosanna Arquette probably suffers most from this. As Cassie, she has has that shining-eyed elfin beauty--fragile and lustrous and snappingly alert--that makes audiences love to watch her. Yet at times her Cassie seems a little too querulous, quick or quirky. Her best moments are actually her most painful ones: her Edvard Munch shrieks or the marvelous anguish that leaks out in her scenes with ex-boyfriend Billy (Jim Youngs).

"Nobody's Fool" (MPAA-rated: PG 13) doesn't really jell, but it's still a sometimes rhapsodically goofy experience. If Arquette doesn't really hold the center together, she at least flies off ravishingly at the edges. The movie is a fond valentine to the special salvations of theater. It's an ode to a squeezed heartland, small-town desperation and sheer, stunning blind love.

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