A well-meaning film about well-meaning people, Tom DiCillo’s The Real Blonde is more engaging than amusing. It has several likable characters and one audacious scene, and is a significant improvement over its predecessor, the stridently whimsical Box of Moonlight. Still, in its attempt to reclaim New York City for regular folks, it risks seeming an art-house ally of Rudy Giuliani.

The story unfolds during a two-month lovemaking drought for a biblically named couple, unemployed actor Joe (Matthew Modine) and fashion-photography makeup artist Mary (DiCillo regular Catherine Keener). Estranged because of Joe’s unwillingness to take paying work in commercials and soap operas, the two drift apart, and both flirt with others: Mary with her “rage release quotient” instructor (Denis Leary), Joe with Madonna’s stand-in for a music video (Elizabeth Berkley). Their true-romance travails are mirrored by the piggish search of Joe’s actor pal Bob (Maxwell Caulfield) for a “real” blonde, which leads to both a pure-hearted (if dim-witted) model (Bridgette Wilson) and a bitchy soap actress (Daryl Hannah).

Since Mary and Joe inhabit the outskirts of the fashion and movie business, DiCillo can have some fun with such minor characters as a skeptical agent (Kathleen Turner), an imperious art director (Marlo Thomas), a lecherous shrink (Buck Henry), and a prissy catering director (Christopher Lloyd). There’s also an echo of DiCillo’s best film, the indie-film satire Living in Oblivion, when its beleaguered but unbowed auteur (Steve Buscemi) shows up as the utterly sold-out director of the Madonna video. It’s during that video shoot that Joe gets to stand up for decency and common sense, lampooning a black-nationalist assistant director who insists that Jews invented AIDS and that the Holocaust never happened.

This wish-fulfillment scene is one of several triumphs for Joe, who successfully intervenes in a sidewalk altercation and convinces the patrons of a trendy cafe that The Piano was a load of crap. (For such a savvy guy, though, Joe is easily duped when he gets a phone message from a woman who identifies herself as Madonna.) Like Joe, Mary is also on a mission to restore civility to New York life, but her adversaries are less exotic: They’re mostly guys who say crude things to her on the street.

The director makes his case against Hollywood simply with casting: Modine never quite made it, Keener seldom works except in DiCillo’s films, Thomas is ancient history, Turner and Hannah are in older-actress limbo, and Berkley and Caulfield were spat out by the biz after, respectively, Showgirls and Grease 2. His case against New York’s boorishness, however, is more problematic. Although the film doesn’t quite suggest that anyone who isn’t a young white heterosexual is demonic—Bob, after all, is probably the least likable character—it does offer paper-thin characterizations of some of Joe and Mary’s neighbors.

DiCillo pays homage to Contempt’s inventory-of-female-beauty scene, but his crabbiness seems less akin to Godard’s radicalism than to Woody Allen’s xenophobia. As with Allen’s films, of course, The Real Blonde works best when the lines are zingy, which isn’t very often. The director’s critique would probably be more persuasive if his most profound comment on the fashion industry didn’t involve a fart joke.

Love and Death on Long Island is Death in Venice lite, which may not sound like such a bad idea to anyone who’s seen Luchino Visconti’s heavy-going 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novel. Where Visconti went operatic with his account of an aging artiste’s obsessive love for a beautiful young man, first-time British writer-director Richard Kwietniowski takes a more low-key approach. Indeed, his film is basically a sitcom.

The unsubtly named Giles De’Ath (John Hurt) is a reclusive, studiously old-fashioned British novelist who one rainy day finds himself locked out of his impeccably organized London home. He takes refuge in a cinema, thinking that he’s going to see an adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel. Instead, he finds himself confronted with Hotpants College 2 and (improbably) stays to watch it. He’s fascinated by one of the actors, Ronnie Bostock, a young hunk who’s much like the man who plays him, Beverly Hills, 90210 eminence Jason Priestley. This obsession revolutionizes his life.

The transformation is not noticeably erotic. In order to contemplate the object of his obsession, the long-widowed De’Ath must come to grips not with his sexuality but with contemporary technology. The novelist has lived without a TV or answering machine, let alone a VCR, yet soon acquires all three. (That he doesn’t try to locate any web pages dedicated to his favorite is just one indication that Kwietniowski’s adaptation of Gilbert Adair’s novella is itself a few years out of date.) Ronnie Bostock is De’Ath’s doorway to the modern world.

Eventually, the novelist’s fan-mag and video-shop research ends, and he must take to the field. De’Ath travels to Long Island, where Ronnie has a getaway home. There he contrives to meet Audrey (Fiona Loewi), Ronnie’s fashion-model girlfriend. Summoning unexpected guile, the formerly detached observer of the human condition disarms Audrey, who soon invites him to meet her beau. De’Ath is equally charming to Ronnie, but his fixation on the young actor becomes obvious to Audrey when De’Ath starts excluding her from the conversation. Audrey devises a plan to separate the two men, forcing the novelist to a desperate act.

Not very desperate, though; Love and Death on Long Island is too mild to partake of genuine catastrophe. Rather than a tragedy, it’s a traditional fish-out-of-water comedy, a showcase for Hurt’s clever portrayal of the psychic time traveler who’s befuddled to have arrived in the century in which he has in fact always lived. Most of the best moments involve De’Ath’s small confrontations with the everyday clerks, mailmen, short-order cooks, and delivery boys who know so much more about the modern world than he does. The other highlight is the novelist’s low-key jousting with Audrey, in which Loewi proves herself almost as sly a performer as the excellent Hurt.

The problem with sitcoms, of course, is they rely so much on stereotypical characters. Anyone familiar with such up-to-date British literary superstars as Martin Amis, A.S. Byatt, or Irvine Welsh will find the faux-Edwardian De’Ath implausible. As for Ronnie Bostock, anyone savvy enough to have secured a Hollywood career with movies like Hotpants College 2 would be quick to demonstrate his breadth by making a small, upscale independent film. Something like, say, Love and Death on Long Island.

There’s little that’s more gauche than overdressed swashbucklers in a state of desperation, which is the spectacle presented for several months now by The Man in the Iron Mask. Not in the film itself, but in its trailers and TV commercials. These promotional shorts have been recut frantically in the apparent fear that no one is going to want to see this movie. The original trailer tried to hide the essential plot twist (known to those familiar with Alexandre Dumas’ original—but there aren’t many of these in the flick’s target audience); the result was both mystifying and juvenile, thanks to a shot of the slobbiest Musketeer (Gerard Depardieu) being hit by bird shit—a scene that’s not even in the final cut. Two versions later, the trailer trumpets the plot development the movie attempts to hide for its first hour: The man in the iron mask is—no pushing, girls!—Leonardo DiCaprio.

With Titanic’s take about to pass the gross national product of Indonesia, there’s no point in arguing that DiCaprio shouldn’t be cast in period dramas. Nonetheless, he shouldn’t—or at least not in period dramas where he plays a Frenchman. He was no Rimbaud, and he’s equally unconvincing as either the petty, tyrannical King Louis or his twin brother Phillippe, who has kept his agreeable disposition despite a life spent in prison, six years of it also in the iron mask.

If this casting strategy makes the movie sound a bit like a 17th-century version of The Patty Duke Show, it would be better if that were true. Alas, writer-director Randall Wallace (who wrote the equally cartoonish Braveheart) is deadly earnest about his ahistorical melodrama. (There was actually a man imprisoned in a mask by Louis XIV, but many historians agree it was an Italian count who reneged on a deal to cede a Mantuan fortress to the French king.) Depardieu’s Porthos is meant to provide comic relief, but Jeremy Irons (Aramis), John Malkovich (Athos), and Gabriel Byrne (D’Artagnan) are disastrously solemn about their silly roles as aging Musketeers. The only convincing principals are two Frenchwomen, Anne (La Femme Nikita) Parillaud as Louis’ mother, Queen Anne, and Judith Godrèche as Christine, the young beauty whom the philandering Louis conspires to steal from her fiancé. (And Godrèche has a much more interesting role in Olivier Assayas’ Paris at Dawn, which screens this Saturday at the National Gallery.)

Like such AARP neo-noirs as the current Twilight, The Man in the Iron Mask features some Rockford Files-style business about the aches, both physical and spiritual, of aging tough guys. Three of the Musketeers have gone into retirement, although the creaky, overweight Porthos still attempts to live the hedonistic life of an earthy twentysomething. For soap-operatic reasons that will eventually be explained, D’Artagnan still serves the king. Aramis, however, is convinced that the cruel Louis must be replaced, and Athos soon has reason to join him. With Porthos along for the ride, they decide to replace Louis with Phillippe—an enterprise subject to the sort of contrived triumphs and failures that used to prolong Saturday afternoon serials.

At 132 minutes, The Man in the Iron Mask is no more prolonged than most recent Hollywood epics. Almost everything about it seems bloated, though, from the overstuffed romanticism of Wallace’s script and the fake church music (and Titaniclike Celtic lament) of Nick Glennie-Smith’s score to the blatantly phony swordplay and the epilogue claiming that Louis (actually Phillippe, of course) “is remembered as the greatest ruler in his country’s history.” (Actually, he’s remembered as a megalomaniac who bankrupted France.) The only element in this outdated, overstated costume drama that seems too small is top-billed DiCaprio. Poster-boy, sure, but Sun King, hardly. CP