"Waiting for the Light" is a miserable little fable about what happens when a madman mistakes a children's prank for a miracle. Penned and plotted with plodding inevitability, this dreary enchantment has something -- I'm not sure what -- to say about faith, hope and the national condition.

Set during the Cuban missile crisis, the story follows Kay (Teri Garr), a likable single mother saddled with a troublesome aunt (Shirley MacLaine) and two disruptive children, from Chicago to Buckley, Wash., where she has inherited a crumbling diner. You can practically see the elbow-grease montage coming, in which Garr and company set the ruin to rights. And a trickle of customers soon arrives to order greasy eggs and burned coffee.

MacLaine, who looks like death warmed over in the microwave, is cadaverous and sweaty as Aunt Zena, a vaudeville magician who incites capricious behavior in the unruly Emily (Hillary Wolf) and Eddie (Colin Baumgartner). When the children incur the wrath of Mr. Mullins (Vincent Schiavelli), an ill-tempered recluse in the ramshackle house next door, Zena and the youngsters pay him back with some ghostly legerdemain.

However, Mullins, a former mental patient, imagines that he has seen not a ghost but an angel in his apple tree. In a new-found state of grace, he returns to the church to share his glorious vision with the small but gullible congregation. When word of the miracle leaks out, reporters, hucksters and the faithful swarm to Mullins's orchard. The diner prospers, but Kay can't help feeling guilty, for she suspects Zena and the children are at the bottom of her new-found success.

Never sure where it's headed, this first American film by British writer-director Christopher Monger is "Bagdad Cafe" without the whimsy. Awash in sentiment and Carole King music, it fairly wallows in '60s-era nostalgia, using more JFK news footage than a typical documentary on the period. Monger mistakes mood for movement, just as MacLaine mistakes looking her worst for actually acting. Waiting for the light? Yes, we are.

Waiting for the Light, at area theaters, is rated PG.