Co-written and directed by John Turturro

As a filmmaker, actor John Turturro clearly believes in drawing from personal experience: His directorial debut, the 1992 Mac (which won the Camera D'Or at Cannes), was avowedly based on his father's life. For his second feature, Illuminata, Turturro takes a look at the theater, showing us the ambitions, fears and vanities of actors, writers, theater owners and even — heaven help us! — critics.

Turturro does triple duty here. Besides directing, he co-wrote the screenplay, teaming up once again with his Mac collaborator, Brandon Cole (whose stage play Imperfect Love receives an "inspired by" credit). Not surprisingly, he stars as well.

The story is set in turn-of-the-century New York, where Tuccio (Turturro) is the playwright-in-residence for a struggling repertory company run by two bickering theater owners, Astergourd (Beverly D'Angelo) and Pallenchio (Donal McCann, who died last month). Tuccio is aching to stage his new play, Illuminata, which he has written for his true love, company star Rachel (Katherine Borowitz, Turturro's real-life wife). But the owners, particularly Astergourd, are convinced that the play isn't ready: The ending is unsatisfying. Luckily for our hero, the lead player in that evening's production of Cavalleria Rusticana collapses midperformance. "This is what happens when an actor is miscast," snorts the envious Dominique (Rufus Sewell), who believes that he should play all the romantic leads.) As all about him lose their heads, Tuccio takes the stage and announces that, bereft of that play's star, the company will quickly regroup for Illuminata.

Unfortunately, the audience includes the acidulous and influential critic Bevalaqua (Christopher Walken), who savages the work in print. The only kind word Bevalaqua has is for Marco (Bill Irwin), a supporting player who tickles his sexual fancy. Marco is none too enthusiastic about Bevalaqua's intentions but is convinced by his colleagues to at least humor him for the sake of the theater.

Meanwhile, Tuccio is likewise the victim/beneficiary of an infatuation. Celimene (Susan Sarandon), a genuine star, has chosen him as her next lover, an appointment that will surely lead to a major production of his play. Will Tuccio sell out his company and his true love for success?

There are more subplots and complications, nearly all revolving around sex and theatrical ambition. In fact, there may be too many complications. Unlike Mac, which remained relatively focused on its protagonist, Illuminata is an ensemble work about an ensemble. Turturro has been generous to his excellent cast: His part is not much larger than several others', and even the smaller players get to have their shining moments. But his generosity leaves the story unfocused. We feel cut adrift amid the various plot threads. This is exacerbated by some murky exposition. Characters, events and the passage of time are not always clearly established; it's easy to lose track of just who is infatuated with whom and why they may, or may not, get together.

There is also an uncomfortable shift of tone as the movie progresses: The film is being marketed primarily as a comedy and is, for its first hour, quite funny. But after that, the jokes evaporate; things turn serious, and the film's momentum dissipates badly. By the end, harmless pronouncements such as "It's a slender curtain between theater and life," which might have played well mixed in with the jokes, sound irritatingly pompous.

That these flaws undercut the movie's effectiveness is all the more a shame, because Turturro and Cole have done so much right. For the first two-thirds, the jokes vary between the broad and — that rarest of rarities nowadays — the genuinely witty. ("Of course one never knows what is good," the indecisive theater owner complains. "That's what critics are for!") Sarandon is deliriously droll as the vain star. (Spying a half-clad ingenue, she sighs, "Ah, to think that in another 10 years, I shall look like that!") The filmmakers seem to have been striving for the tone of the mellower Shakespearean comedies, with dialogue that generally sounds like blank verse. And blank verse has rarely been pulled off so successfully in a modern setting.

But therein lies a problem for which Turturro cannot be faulted: Illuminata suffers from being released while Shakespeare in Love is still in our minds. Although the two films have their differences, their similarities are numerous — the rhythm of the dialogue being but one — and, whatever its virtues, Illuminata can't help but seem the worse for the comparison. There's no shame in not quite stacking up against one of last year's best films, but Illuminata would probably seem more impressive if we didn't have Shakespeare in Love to measure it by.

Opens Aug. 27 at the Chase Park Plaza.

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