A little movie about a middle-aged guy getting to know his neighbors by sleeping over at their homes sounds very appealing. Julia Roberts‘ Red Om intends to make such a film, using Peter Lovenheim‘s In the Neighborhood, a forthcoming non-fiction book based on the author’s June ’09 N.Y. Times Op-Ed piece (called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?“). It sounds like a perfect role for some agreeably seasoned older type — Richard Gere, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Jenkins, Daniel Day Lewis, etc. (But not George Clooney!)

The “but” factor is in the routine presumption that Roberts sees a role for herself in the film.

The shlumpy, low-key charm of the thing will be compromised (if not lost) if the yet-to-be-announced screenwriter performs a sex-change so Roberts can play the Lovenheim part. Julia Roberts asking a neighbor if she can sleep over obviously presents a whole different dynamic than some graying 40-something guy suggesting the same. And if Roberts portrays one of the neighbors who says “sure, okay, you can stay in the guest room,” that opens the door to one of those intriguing mature-relationship stories that Roberts is known for, which would give the film a formulaic feeling.

This isn’t directly related, but one way of getting to know strangers that has entirely disappeared from the American landscape is hitchhiking. I used to thumb around all the time during my wayward youth, and I can still remember intriguing conversations and faces — vividly — from numerous mobile encounters. (Some of them, okay, involved middle-aged gay guys looking to get lucky. I remember rolling my eyes and muttering “oh, Christ” as one gray-haired dude suggestively stroked the stick shift of his Mustang fastback.) I only know that open and friendly chats with strangers in that context is over and done with. You used to see kids with their thumb out on highway entrance ramps in the ’70s and ’80s, even. No more.

There’s actually one place where you can still hitchhike with a reasonable hope of getting a lift — i.e., in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival. Especially if you’re wearing a prominent press badge and a cowboy hat.