NEW YORK — 'The Kingdom'' is a nice, dignified name for a drama. But so was ''Twin Peaks,'' and we all know what that turned out to be.
Hailing from Denmark, where it ran as a TV miniseries, ''The Kingdom'' comes to American movie screens with comparisons to ''M*A*S*H'' and ''ER'' swirling around it. The picture is definitely one of a kind, though; everything from its episodic story to its 4-1/2-hour length is unconventional for a theatrical film. If audiences take to it, it could bring a refreshing touch of free-form goofiness to the motion-picture season.
The main setting of ''The Kingdom'' is a huge hospital in Copenhagen, where physicians pride themselves on attacking human ills with a vast battery of high-tech machines run by rigorously trained scientific experts.
What they fail to recognize is the incongruous fact that their ''kingdom'' is built on ancient land swarming with ''spirits'' and phantasms that couldn't care less about the logic, reason, and rationality that modernized society is supposedly all about.
These ''ghosts'' don't so much invade the institution as infiltrate it, steering the more offbeat doctors and patients - of which there are plenty - toward behaviors most hospitals would never own up to. Hence the flowering of everything from new-age therapies and criminal operations to secret societies and ectoplasmic manifestations, all side-by-side with the latest styles in computerized data-mongering and gleaming electronic gimmickry.
Most of this is played for laughs - comparisons with ''Twins Peaks'' and ''M*A*S*H'' are justified by both the weirdness and the hilarity of the action - and director Lars von Trier goes in for bits of gross-out humor that may have some moviegoers peeking from behind closed fingers.
But it's important to note that the story has a smart and serious undertone, suggesting that today's obsession with technological fixes will remain absurd as long as we allow the subtle stirrings of superstition to keep a place in our thinking.
''The Kingdom'' is neither as brilliant nor as uproarious as Von Trier's previous picture, ''Zentropa,'' which used the aftermath of World War II as the setting for a hallucinatory attack on humanity's capacity for unacknowledged evil. He remains a commendably bold filmmaker, however, with a distinctive talent for entertaining and provoking at the same time.
The aggressive visual style of ''The Kingdom'' is based as much on circumstance as on artistic choice - a limited budget necessitated two-camera shooting on an unusually fast schedule - but it nicely suits the breakneck craziness of the material. One looks forward to new episodes, slated for production around the middle of next year.
One also looks forward to Von Trier's eventual completion of ''Dimension,'' a long-term project that will survey the diversity of Europe from 1991 to 2024, with each year receiving three minutes of on-screen time. In the meanwhile, his rising reputation is getting another boost from New York's respected Film Society of Lincoln Center, which has scheduled a retrospective of his feature films to run Nov. 17-25 at the Walter Reade Theater.
* ''The Kingdom'' is not rated. It contains sex and violence, often handled with cartoonlike exaggeration.