In the smart, surprisingly touching new satire "Delirious," Steve Buscemi plays a paparazzo named Les Galantine. The name is fitting enough -- Les couldn't be less gallant -- but the character is so much like the four-legged creature Buscemi portrayed brilliantly in last year's "Charlotte's Web" that it is tempting to think of him as Templeton 2.

Like the rat, Les is greedy, secretive and lives in a dirty nest filled with castoffs, although Les makes his home in New York City rather than on a farm in Maine. He's also a bottom feeder, although not a particularly successful one. His claim to fame in the paparazzi world is that he once snapped a photograph of Elvis Costello without his hat on.

He and his brethren are staking out a restaurant where a pop star named K'Harma Leeds (Alison Lohman) is lunching, when a homeless young man named Toby Grace (Michael Pitt) wanders by and offers to bring him coffee.

Down on his luck and chilled to the bone, Toby wants a free cup of coffee, but he's not looking to scam Les. Actually, Toby's soon practicing his sales pitch; he'd like to be the paparazzo's assistant. For free.

The two men begin an awkward friendship, motivated in Les' case by loneliness and his pleasure in feeling important for once. Toby's motivations are less obvious. Naturally, he'd like a warm place to sleep. But he's also got ambition; he wants to be an actor. Les' proximity to fame, however grasping and peripheral, is intriguing to a naive boy who previously resided in a dumpster.

"Delirious" was written and directed by Tom DiCillio, a filmmaker whose career seemed poised to take off after his well-received 1995 Hollywood spoof "Living in Oblivion" (also starring Buscemi), but it never quite found its wings. His career path -- only three movies since "Oblivion" -- may not have been glorious, but it has given him a razor-sharp eye for the business of celebrity.

Navel-gazing on this topic tends to be fairly hollow (Buscemi's recent directorial effort, "Interview," comes to mind). And as the gap narrows between the traditional "star" system and the simply infamous, even a good satire runs the risk of being mistaken for reality programming.

But DiCillo actually does have something new to offer on the topic of fame. He's exploring that increasingly nebulous territory between our disgust with and curiosity about celebrity. The very concept of celebrity enrages Les; he lives to bring them down. Yet, he's dazzled. When Toby, whose star rises as randomly as that of, say, "The Hill's" Lauren Conrad, invites him to a party K'Harma is throwing, Les is absolutely paralyzed with excitement.

Meanwhile, Toby is innocent and pure at heart enough to be able to see K'Harma as the real girl that she is. She may look like a Britney Spears type, strutting around in just a bra, but she's a nice girl, a romantic who is willing to date a homeless boy.

Pitt got his start, improbably, on TV's "Dawson's Creek," then took off his clothes for Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" and later channeled Kurt Cobain in Gus Van Sant's "Last Days." He tends to captivate through an unsettling weirdness; you never really figure out who or what he is, but you can't stop trying.

As Toby, he emits a glow that seems almost divine. This boy has to become a star. In making us root for Toby and his fairy-tale ending, DiCillo succeeds in reminding us of what true star power is. Ultimately, he's far more gentle on celestial beings than we might expect from such a clever satirist, and I found myself torn over whether the ending was a cop-out or an affirmation. But the movie is a provocative little pleasure, and the gleefully vile Buscemi and dreamy-eyed Pitt make a fine 21st-century odd couple.

Reach Mary Pols at mpols@bayareanewspapers.com.

'delirious'

B+

Starring: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Alison Lohman, Gina Gershon

Director: Tom DiCillo

Rated: NR

Opens today: Shattuck, Berkeley; Lumiere, S.F.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes