"IN THE MOOD" is a confused period piece, a nostalgic love story that's part Neil Simon, part "Stand By Me." Not as emptyheaded as your typical teen fare, it seems to be pitching itself instead at the over-25 crowd, but it's so resolutely coy and cute that it's unlikely they'll buy it.

The filmmakers have performed cosmetic surgery on the true story of a 15-year-old nerd, Ellsworth "Sonny" Wisecarver, who, due to a romantic nature and environmental circumstances, ran off with two older women and gained a lot of unwelcome publicity.

Wisecarver first eloped with a 21-year-old neighbor with two children, and the affair ended when she was charged with child stealing. Next he went out for hamburgers with the wife of a Marine, and they never came back. The story was a headline-stealer, and the delighted tabloids dubbed Wisecarver "The Woo Woo Boy" (also "What-A-Man Wisecarver" and "The Love Bandit").

Taking his first shot at directing a feature film is screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson, who sets an uneven pace and lunges for "cute" right from the opening titles. Robinson has his hero address the audience on the soundtrack, a la Eugene Morris Jerome in Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs," and borrows (and botches) the mock-newsreel gimmick from Woody Allen's "Zelig."

There is a nice touch here, though: The real Wisecarver appears as a mailman, who says of the Woo Woo Boy, "I think he's a pervert and quite possibly a communist, too." The film makes glancing allusions to World War II and Wisecarver's barren home life, sugarcoating the sad and sleazy realities that made his exploits possible.

At a certain point, "In the Mood" becomes a sort of lightweight treatise on media fame and tribulations; it's a funny coincidence that Patrick Dempsey as Wisecarver resembles Sean Penn as a pup. Dempsey is too old and assured to pass for 15, but he turns in an appealing performance. Talia Balsam makes an affecting debut as Wisecarver's first love, and the wonderful Beverly D'Angelo does it again as the bottle-blond who runs off with Sonny the second time, playing the ensuing scandal for the cameras.

If the content is made-for-TV quality, the movie is visually appealing in a pristinely nostalgic mode -- the screen strewn with vintage cars, magazine covers, cereal boxes and some wild shirts, and the soundtrack bops and blares with reconstituted big-band music. IN THE MOOD (PG-13) --

At area theaters.