"In Search of a Midnight Kiss" is a radiant romantic comedy with fewer real romantic smarts than it thinks, but considerably more ambition than the usual indie festival fodder. Gigless screenwriter Wilson (Scoot McNairy), a transplanted Texan adrift in L.A., hasn't had a date in six years. Now, with the holidays at hand, he faces the annual prospect of being alone on New Year's Eve. Egged on by his DJ roommate Jacob (Brian McGuire), whose relationship with his own live-in girlfriend Min (Kathleen Luong) appears entirely blissful, Wilson types out a dismal call for help on Craigslist: "Misanthrope seeks misanthrope." It draws one weird response:

"Are you the misanthrope?" asks the girl on the other end of the line.

"Yes. Are you the misanthropee?"

"I dunno. I had to look it up."

Such is the movie's verbal tilt, a procession of testy jousts that's consistently funny even if it tells us less about the characters than it does about the word-crafting facility of director Alex Holdridge, who wrote the script.

The girl on the phone turns out to be Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a lovely, moon-faced blonde in cool boots and big black shades who's oddly over-revved and seriously lacking in interpersonal skills. She's auditioning potential male companions to fend off a lonely New Year's Eve herself, and she allots Wilson the number-four slot on her list. They meet at a café and find themselves instantly incompatible. Nevertheless, Vivian gives Wilson until 6 p.m. to allay her reservations. They spend most of the rest of the movie walking around Los Angeles while the desperate slacker presses his case.

The movie forthrightly recalls Richard Linklater's walk-and-talk classics, "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset." Holdridge doesn't bother attempting to replicate Linklater's long, intricately constructed takes, but in the same way that Linklater guided us through the less-traveled paths around Vienna and Paris, his fellow Austin filmmaker navigates through parts of Los Angeles that are rarely seen on a movie screen: out-of-the-way parks, abandoned theatres, glaring subway stations and grotty downtown lofts. Wilson begins the journey as a reflexive pessimist ("I think L.A. is where love comes to die"), but Vivian, despite her borderline hostility, begins to lighten him up. She's an actress, she says (unemployed, of course), and since he claims to be a screenwriter, why doesn't he write her a juicy part: "Something sexy and edgy. Something where I get to use a knife."

The picture is also heavily indebted to Woody Allen's 1979 "Manhattan," in which cinematographer Gordon Willis set a standard for black-and-white artistry that's rarely been matched since. Here, Holdridge's cinematographer, Robert Murphy, brackets an elegantly delineated gray scale between eye-popping whites and rich, deep blacks, and his inventive framing enlarges the story in interesting ways — tilting up the sides of sun-drenched buildings, he shows us the city the way Wilson and Vivian are beginning to see it, as if discovering it for the first time.

Holdridge is less addicted to tiresome sex gags than many other indie directors, but he has his moments, and while they're sometimes funny, they disrupt the tone of the movie. And his take on love — which basically boils down to "What the hell is it, anyway?" — leads to a conclusion so airily ambiguous it almost floats away into film-school pretension. Still, "Midnight Kiss" is a breakthrough accomplishment, not just for Holdridge and Murphy, but for the adroit McNairy, whose shambling charm carries the movie at just the right level of warm confusion, and for the subtly skilful Simmonds, who's a complete sweetheart. (Her moving explication of something called "The Lost Shoe Project," accompanied by Murphy's haunting visual montage, is one of the movie's most emotionally resonant sequences.) And on top of all this, Holdridge, in a transport of inspiration, wraps up the picture with a Scorpions song — and it works. How indie is that?

Check out everything we've got on "In Search of a Midnight Kiss."

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Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor ," also new in theaters this week.