Grade: C-

The ghost of “Northern Exposure” hovers uncomfortably over Thomas Bezucha’s feel-good romantic fable about Henry (Arye Gross), a single, rather morose New York artist who returns to his Montana hometown to care for the ailing granddad who raised him, only to find himself getting close to a classmate (now divorced with kids) on whom he’d had an unrequited crush in high school, while also catching the eye of a quiet shopowner who abruptly becomes infatuated with him (and acts out that feeling by secretly preparing elegant meals for the fellow and his grandfather). The whole community gets involved in trying to help Henry find love and happiness, and while it wouldn’t be fair to reveal precisely how things turn out, it can be said that the piece ends in a way that’s as formulaic as anything you’ll encounter in a Julia Roberts comedy.

The only new element here is that the characters in “Big Eden” are gay. Henry remains obstinately in the closet, painfully afraid to reveal his sexual orientation to any of the locals; the object of his long-ago affection is Dean (Tim DeKay), a Jeff Daniels clone with two young sons who appears ready to give a fling with Henry a try; and the shopowner is Pike (Eric Schweig), a hulking giant of a man who’s so painfully shy he almost seems retarded, and who happens also to be a Native American. The townspeople who surround these three are unrelievedly good- natured, considerate, quirkily eccentric folk who might tend to butt into the triangle but always with the best intentions–at times it feels as though the entire population of Mayberry has been transported to the Northwest to help Henry out. Especially noteworthy are a gaggle of older men who sit around Pike’s store a-whittlin’ and a-wonderin’ about how to get their bud and the artist together: they’re rather like the seven dwarfs except for their height, their dress (plaid shirts, jeans and cowboy hats or gimme caps), and the fact that there’s nobody grumpy among them. (It’s entirely appropriate that one of them is played by an actor named Mark Twogood.)

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with a movie about gay relationships that studiously avoids social issues, medical tragedies and freewheeling sexuality and instead opts for sweetness and charm; indeed, in many respects the turn is a great advance. But a picture that chooses that path still has to be clever, well-paced, intelligently written and nicely cast. “Big Eden” fails this fundamental test. However well-intentioned it might be, the script is pretty much a collection of cliches. To demonstrate this, all one need do is to recast the narrative in one’s mind as a purely heterosexual one, with–let’s say–Renee Zellweger as Henrietta, Hugh Grant as Dean, and Colin Firth as Pike (somebody like Anne Bancroft would probably play Henrietta’s wise grandmother). The only difference between the result and such recent formulaic fluff as “Bridget Jones’ Diary” or “Someone Like You” would be that Dean wouldn’t be a simple scoundrel, but rather a confused and conflicted guy; and that, frankly, doesn’t much alter the fact that the plot is pretty much a by-the-numbers affair. The characterizations here aren’t terribly good, either. Henry is remarkably clueless to think that no one around him might become aware of his homosexuality, and Dean’s inclination to try a relationship with him is never successfully explored. Pike, on the other hand, remains an enigma throughout–not least because he’s presented as so tongue-tied and impassive that he’s simply unreadable; he makes Ed Chigliak look positively articulate. (The device of having him show his feelings through cooking, moreover, is a slender “Like Water for Chocolate” imitation.) As for the townspeople, they’re presented as so impossibly cheery and supportive that the central triangle might as well be in a Americanized Munchkinland. Certainly a film like this doesn’t need some obligatory homophobic episodes, nor does it need to be fully realistic, but this “Eden” depicts a paradise so complete that it’s almost absurd.

There’s also a major casting difficulty. DeKay and Schweig do as well with their underwritten roles as one could expect, but Gross, though an amiable a fellow, is all wrong as Henry Hart. It’s not merely that subtlety doesn’t seem to be in his thespian vocabulary (though it isn’t); it’s that he’s never remotely convincing as a Montana native. He comes across as much the same sort of quintessential New Yorker that Rob Morrow’s Joel Fleischmann was in “Northern Exposure.” The problem is that “Big Eden” isn’t supposed to be merely a fish-out-of-water parable, it’s intended as a you-can-go-home-again fable; and Gross’ presence militates our accepting it as such. (George Coe isn’t very authentic as Henry’s ill grandfather, either, but he’s a far superior actor and conceals the fact better.)

There is, finally, the pacing that, as director, Bezucha has imposed on the picture. Small-town life, as the old “Andy Griffith Show” demonstrated, can be portrayed with a leisurely charm that’s very winning. But there’s a difference between “leisurely” and “lethargic.” This movie is often cruelly slow. Bezucha undoubtedly intends the deliberation to be both revealing and beguiling, but he doesn’t possess the technique to pull off the trick. Too many scenes plod, and run on carelessly, too; sharper editing would be a definite plus. The picture ends up seeming much longer than it actually is.

In the final analysis, this sweetly optimistic fable turns an old cliche on its head. We could probably all agree that the town of Big Eden, with its unrushed tempo and likable neighbors, is so perfect that one might want to live there. Unfortunately, as a movie “Big Eden” isn’t nearly as nice a place to visit.