Once "Moonlighting," which opened Friday at the Dupont Circle, begins to degenerate into some kind of grimly inexplicable Polish joke, it's difficult to recall that the premise seemed quite intriguing. Jerzy Skolimowski, a Polish e'migre' filmmaker who settled in London a dozen or so years ago, is regrettably predisposed to tilt toward allegory of the murkily demented kind.
Evidently, Skolimowski improvised the project rather quickly in immediate reaction to the suppression of Solidarity in December 1981. A quartet of Polish workmen arrives in London early that December, a few days before the fateful crackdown. Supervised by a young, anxious electrician named Nowak (Jeremy Irons), who has a marginally functional command of English, the group has been hired by a big shot back home to renovate his London flat. It's a blatantly illegal commission, of course, but the workers stand to make a year's worth of wages in one feverishly productive month.
Customs officials overlook the rather extensive baggage transported by these furtive Poles, allowing them to get their tools into the country without an inquisitive hitch. They locate the flat and settle in for a long month's exertion, economizing by camping out in the work site and taking their meals from tin cans. The boss has entrusted Nowak with a wad of currency theoretically adequate for the duration. Hoping to keep distractions to a minimum, the increasingly hapless and desperate Nowak invests the 20 pounds set aside for entertainment and his own bonus of the same amount in a used television set that loses its picture moments after he hooks it up.
When he learns of the trouble in Poland, Nowak dedicates himself to the completion of the job with a pathological dedication, perhaps spurred by jealous anxiety about his wife, who may or may not be susceptible to adulterous temptation. The other men are prevented from discovering that anything is amiss, supposedly by Nowak's obsessive efforts to keep them in the dark but actually by Skolimowski's refusal to let them emerge as characters with identities or resources of their own. They're kept in the dark by being kept off screen. We don't see them when Nowak isn't there, although his cash reserves are eaten up by unforeseen expenses that oblige him to do a lot of solitary scrambling to make ends meet, including systematic shoplifting raids on the neighborhood supermarket.
Narrowing the focus to Nowak's thoughts and actions, Skolimowski spares himself the potentially tricky work of rationalizing the failure of the disgruntled carpenters to catch on to a suspicious thing or two. However, he purchases a dubious sort of expediency at the cost of overall dramatic coherence and significance.
Nowak must represent Skolimowski's pathetic stand-in for the regime. A frightened surrogate of the distant, unreachable boss, he can't command genuine loyalty or respect from the workers in his charge (it's also impossible to imagine Jeremy Irons making much of a physical impression on this trio of proles), so he resorts to greater and greater deceptions to keep them simultaneously ignorant and busy. This concept might play, in several conceivable ironic tones, but it certainly won't play with an English actor like Irons, overbred for weakling roles, or within the closet-sized space of human interest Skolimowski dares to permit.
Nowak's breakdown is self-activated and self-punishing. If the other men are supposed to stand in for Solidarity, they remain curiously hazy and innocent of any influence on Nowak's behavior. It's impossible to tell what the upshot of their London misadventure is meant to be, but Nowak's apparent collapse makes the story look even dimmer, like a wish-fulfillment fable in which Skolimowski is simply expressing a vain hope for the demise of a social system that actually had more than enough sheer coercive power to reassert itself.
The fleeting, random details about culture shock, which might seem eerily funny or poignant in another storytelling context, never quite add up in the gathering murk of "Moonlighting." Moreover, Skolimowski is far too portentous and listless a director to be readily interpreted as a droll humorist.