Movies can whisk you to exotic locales and plunge you into unfamiliar cultures: The cinemas of Iran, South Korea, and Finland are all rich and busy windows on the ways other people live.
So can we talk about the cinema of Vermont for a moment? "Nosey Parker" is the third in sheep farmer and filmmaker John O'Brien's "Tunbridge Trilogy" -- the other two were "Vermont Is for Lovers" (1993) and the cult hit "Man With a Plan" (1998), a.k.a. "that Fred Tuttle Movie" -- and at times it is disarmingly foreign. This is not because it comes from another place but because it comes from another time.
On the surface, "Parker" is a sweet, pokey culture-clash comedy about Vermonters new and old. Literally. The Newmans are psychiatrist Richard (Richard Snee) and his wife Natalie (Natalie Picoe), New Yorkers by way of Connecticut who have settled in Tunbridge seeking a more unvarnished lifestyle; to that end, they've moved into a million-dollar dream house featuring a Jacuzzi, darkroom, and spa. The "old man" is George (George Lyford), a 70-something Tunbridge local whom the lonely Natalie hires as a handyman before finding in him a deeper sort of friend. Snee and Picoe are actors, Lyford is his plain old self, and the laughs -- and they're genuine -- arise from the way the couple's self-conscious poise is shaken by his realistic, 15-mph wit.
Natalie, in her 30s, is a trophy wife to the older, more smug Richard; childless and miserable about it, she vibrates with a lower-New England neurotic energy that's leavened by curiosity about her new surroundings. She hangs antique farm implements about the house and is quietly flabbergasted when George explains their functions, just as we're moved to silence when O'Brien cuts to scratchy black-and-white footage of these tools being used decades ago.
The director's trump card is the way he incorporates real-life friends and neighbors -- including "Man with a Plan" star Tuttle, who passed away in October -- to comment on the interlopers via poker-faced, uproarious phone conversations. O'Brien and his gifted cinematographer, David Parry, are also in love with the countryside, treating us to godlike sunsets, aerial vistas of the autumn landscape, and a few too many shots of cows. Well, it is Vermont.
The result is a movie that breathes -- that moves to a rural rhythm the filmmakers are all too aware is dying out. In treasuring that rhythm, they smooth over some dodgy spots. There's a much tougher film that keeps threatening to break out of "Nosey Parker," one that's less about the lessons George passes on to Richard and Natalie and more about the way upper-class bohos use and are used by their poorer neighbors. The relationship between Natalie and George carries an unexplored whiff of "Driving Miss Daisy" exploitation (she is paying him, after all), and only Lyford's leathery directness and the lovely Picoe's charm keep it at bay.
O'Brien pussyfoots around the nature of George's attraction to Natalie, as well. In a deleted scene that can be viewed on the DVD of "Nosey Parker," the old gus peeps through a window at hot-tub revels between the Newmans and two of their city friends. This may be evidence of a different film that went by the wayside when Lyford unexpectedly died during the movie's 1999 production. As it stands, "Nosey Parker" is a poignant, overly gentle tribute to a man and the upcountry ways he represented. Before the final credits roll, O'Brien gives us a slide-show tour of his star's life, going back through Lyford's middle age, youth, childhood, and infancy. At last, and a little too late, we get a sense of the man.
("Nosey Parker": **1/2)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.