As he works out his metier, Ron Howard continues to develop into one of the most interesting of the new crop of directors -- he's not an "issues" filmmaker, but he has a deftness with the issues that loom large in personal life: love, old age and, in his latest comedy, "Gung Ho," unemployment. Yet "Gung Ho" never gels. By the end, it's curiously unformed, almost a blueprint for another movie.

The germ of "Gung Ho" is drawn from the headlines: what happens to a small American town when the Japanese buy a failing auto plant there and try to remake it in their own image. Hunt (Michael Keaton), the plant foreman, knows Assan Motors is their last chance, so he travels to Japan to suggest a joint venture; to everyone's surprise, the Japanese show up in Hadleyville.

They're led by Kazahiro (Gedde Watanabe), whom we meet at the beginning in a ritual humiliation for failed executives (Keaton's dumbfounded double takes on this screaming session are hilarious). He immediately promotes Hunt to employe liaison, and the relationship between the two, as they grow to appreciate what's strongest in each culture -- and, more centrally, what's irreducibly human in both of them -- becomes the emotional anchor of the film.

The best scenes in "Gung Ho" (like a drunken lark in a bowling alley) track this relationship, but mostly, the movie's busy with dialectics. The Japanese make better cars; the Americans make better fathers. The Japanese could use a little warmth; the Americans could use a little pride in their work.

"Gung Ho's" view of all this is balanced, in an arithmetical way, instead of nuanced. Howard is careful to include a good Japanese and a bad Japanese, a sympathetic American and a loutish, cruel American. The movie isn't complex, really -- it's like two simple-minded movies slammed into one.

"Gung Ho" is by far Howard's most derivative movie. Where the affinity between Howard and his idols, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, is generally one of mood -- his movies feel the way theirs did -- you can trace the lines from "Gung Ho" to "Hail the Conquering Hero" or "It's a Wonderful Life." The result is that the sentiment and warmth that make Howard unique among contemporary filmmakers seem stilted, apish.

And in this regard, Howard is ill-served by his cinematographer, Don Peterman. Peterman's distant, uninvolved camera usually fits Howard well -- it plays to the deadpan in his soul -- but here it just seems icy. Partly, that's because Howard's intentions have changed. "Gung Ho" is less comic than Howard's other work. Much of the movie is shot in documentary style, and it can be surprisingly harsh, highly emotional, which makes Peterman's distance seem perverse.

If Howard is ill-served by Peterman, he's worse served by Keaton, who proves once again that he's no leading man. An audience simply can't sustain two hours of his jiggle-and-gape, his arched eyebrows and peeled teeth. The momentum of "Gung Ho" is supposed to come from Hunt's quandary, as he's caught between labor and management, but you can never see inside Keaton -- his night of the soul isn't dark, just dim. Keaton's mannered comic aplomb simply underlines what's phony and copycat in the movie. He virtually ignores Watanabe, which is a shame, because that actor's sweet, agile performance gives him plenty to play off of.

The message of "Gung Ho" -- that deep down, we're all human beings, and we should all pull together -- is broadly sentimental, but the movie doesn't earn its sentiment. It needs to be tougher. But if Howard has failed, it's because he's trying out something new, something that's neither comedy nor drama, but closer to real life. It's hard to criticize a director who's not resting, but still searching.