"Cannery Row" is a sweet and comic slice of life with all the elements in balance: it's funny, it's sad, and it feels right. From two stories John Steinbeck wrote, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, it's about a marine biologist who makes his life in Cannery Row at a time when the sardines have all been caught in Monterey Bay, and there's nothing to can. There, in a shack by the shell of the Delmar Canning Co., he hides from his past, and sometimes in his loneliness he talks to his snakes. There really was such a man as Doc, who is played with convincing strength by Nick Nolte. He was a marine biologist named Ed Ricketts, and he was Steinbeck's favorite drinking buddy. Into town comes Suzy, not educated but plenty bright, dewy-eyed, down on her luck but plucky. She applies for work at the local bordello, and this is the start of their love story. Suzy is the first starring movie role for Debra Winger, a delightful comedienne. But the supporting cast -- the inhabitants of Cannery Row -- are stars, too, wrapping up the love story as a heartwarmer. They're the friends Doc doesn't know he has, some living in empty sluice pipes outside his door, a cast of misfits, the unwanted and the unuseful. We see Doc through their eyes and their attachment to him. One who stands out among the bums is a hulk of a man named Hazel (Frank McRae) with the mind and the trust of a small boy, whose misapprehensions and misadventures are funny and endearing, culminating when, to his dismay, his horoscope predicts he's going to be president. In the bordello up the street, ladies of the night paint their toenails, holding their toes apart with cigarettes. Their madame, Fauna, is Audra Lindley, in a role she plays with relish. Most know her as the sexually frustrated Helen Roper of television's "Three's Company." She helps Suzy and Doc get together and explains what Doc is doing in Cannery Row in the first place: "He ain't hidin' out. He just ain't puttin' himself out for comment, that's all." The mysterious Seer (Sunshine Parker) lends an allegorical quality to the story of life on Cannery Row. Doc, wanting to make something of himself, goes to him on the beach for solace. "Some people think I am crazy," the grizzled Seer observes. "It's this hat I wear." "Cannery Row" reunited a winning team: producer Michael Phillips and writer- director David S. Ward. They collaborated on "The Sting," and "Cannery Row" is made of the same tight fabric, interwoven with the blues piano of Dr. John. Sometimes it's beautiful -- as when the simple-minded Seer is silhouetted before the sky. Sometimes, when you're looking down a stream at thousands of corralled and slimy frogs that Doc needs for his lab, it's fairly ugly. But this story is about seeing beauty in ugliness. Doc looks for answers in octopi. Steinbeck's benign creatures live in relative squalor, victims of the Depression and other disasters, but they find happy moments. "Cannery Row" is one of them.

CANNERY ROW -- At the AMC Carrollton, Jerry Lewis Cinema, K-B Crystal, Laurel Towncneter, NTI Jefferson, Roth's Montgomery, Roth's Mt. Vernon, Roth's Randolph, Roth's Silver Spring, Roth's Tysons Corner, Showcase Bradlick, Showcase Fair City Mall and West End Circle.