Watch Judge Mitchell Hattaway struggle to say something really nice about a movie for a change.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A comedy.
Remember the end of Animal House? Remember the character updates? They mentioned that Boon and Katy were married in 1964 and divorced in 1969, but they forgot to mention that a few decades later Boon co-wrote and directed a very good movie.
Facts of the Case
Leo Spivak (Peter Riegert, Animal House) isn't really a bad husband. Leo Spivak isn't really a bad father. Leo Spivak isn't really a bad son. Leo Spivak isn't really a bad salesman. So why does Leo Spivak seem so unhappy? It could be because he feels ineffectual. It could be because he feels unable to connect. Or it could simply be because he's human.
I have been holding off on completing this review for some time now, and there is a rather odd reason for this: I enjoyed this film so much I wasn't sure how to approach writing about it. I've been reviewing bad stuff for so long I didn't really know how to convey my thoughts on a movie this good. Strange, huh? Well, I guess I at least have to try. (In case you haven't figured it out, this is my way of telling you I'm probably going to screw this one up.)
If I had to pigeonhole it, I would classify King of the Corner as a behavioral comedy. It's not driven by its plot, but instead concentrates on character and, to a certain degree, incident. The particulars of the story are far less important than how the characters react to what is occurring (even if that means reacting in ways many people will find less than satisfying, or perhaps not even reacting at all). On top of that, the basic fundamentals of the plot are nothing new. Leo's marriage to Rachel (Isabella Rossellini, Wild at Heart) has reached the point where they really have nothing left to do but grow old together. Elana (Ashley Johnson, What Women Want), Leo's daughter, is trying to get out from under her parents' wings (which her parents, quite naturally, view as an act of rebellion). Sol (Eli Wallach, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Leo's father, wonders why other occupants of his Arizona retirement home seem to die on a daily basis, yet he goes on living. (I'm not sure why Sol would want to die, as his girlfriend in the film is played by West Side Story's Rita Moreno.) Leo is good at pushing new products on focus group members who would probably be better off spending their money elsewhere, which leads him to wonder why he hasn't climbed higher up the corporate ladder. (One of these products is a voice-altering telephone designed to ward off potential burglars: housewife is home alone, thief calls up to see if anyone is there before he breaks in, housewife's voice is altered to sound like Gregory Peck. Trust me when I say that it plays better than it reads.) All of this has been done before, right? Sure, but what's fresh, as I mentioned earlier, is the manner in which the characters (especially Leo) react to and change because of what happens as the film moves along.
I would like to highlight two of the major, for lack of a better phrase, turning points in the story. (There are potential spoilers ahead, but it's nothing you won't find in any other review of this film.) First up is Leo's business trip to Philadelphia, where he happens to run across Betsy Wexler (Beverly D'Angelo, Coal Miner's Daughter), who was the unattainable object of his lust during much of high school. They wind up back at Leo's hotel room (it's obvious she's just as bored with life as Leo is), which again is nothing new, but the payoff is. See, Leo goes to Betsy's house, shows her husband the underwear she left behind, and gets his ass handed to him. This might seem silly at first, but then you realize that, in both initiating the dalliance and provoking the beating, Leo is simply trying to remind himself that he's still alive and can still do something (anything!), however stupid it may be, just for the hell of it. (It also provides a couple of funny punchlines: Leo uses the voice-altering telephone to call home and apologize to Rachel, and he later has to deal with the fact that his daughter has no idea who Gregory Peck is.)
The impact of this instance of infidelity pales in comparison to how deeply Leo's life is affected by the death of his father. Despite their love for each other, it is obvious Leo and Sol were never really close. (Much like Leo, Sol was often away on business while his child was growing up, and Sol developed the problem of being unable to express his love for anyone who is in his immediate vicinity. He harangued his late wife while she was alive, but began to deify her the moment she died. He uses racial epithets in reference to Moreno's character, although his affection for her knows no bounds. And he is caustic around Leo, but tends to go on and on about what a success his son is whenever Leo isn't present.) Leo makes one of his biweekly trips to visit his father, only to find out Sol died earlier that same morning. This immediately leads to a round of bickering with a mortician who wants to tack on two grand to the price of the burial plan Sol had already paid for. (There's some great stuff about plain pine coffins, which are cheap, albeit still kosher). Leo is also stuck with a low-rent rabbi named Evelyn Fink (no jokes about the name, please), who is portrayed by Eric Bogosian (Igby Goes Down). Fink thinks his name has prevented him from being able to secure a regular job, so he's always available when you're anxious to bury someone as fast as possible. (There's a hilarious moment in which Fink, who is trying to gather information about Sol's life, becomes distracted by the crying of a bereaved woman and takes Leo on an excursion to the local dog track.) Fink pulls no punches during his eulogy of Sol, detailing just how ordinary Leo's father truly was. This prompts Leo to reevaluate Sol's life, as well as his own. Leo realizes that he hasn't exactly been a bad father, husband, or son, but has simply been a bad Jew, which in turn has impacted every other facet of his life. And if this realization doesn't exactly provide Leo with the answers he's been looking for, it at least leads him to start asking the right questions; his life does not immediately change for the better, but Leo is at long last able to turn the page.
This movie was obviously a labor of love for Peter Riegert. In addition to starring, he also directed the film and co-wrote the script. And, because he was unable to find a distributor, Riegert even lugged a print around the country, personally booking the film in any theater that would screen it. Hey, if that's not love, I don't know what it. (Riegert couldn't find a distributor for this film, but, as I'm typing this, Cheaper by the Dozen 2 is playing on almost 3,000 screens. Jeez.) What started out as an attempt by Riegert to provide himself with the type of material he was unable to find through the normal Hollywood channels ultimately became a small gem of a film. (So, if any industry bigwigs are reading this, and Peter Riegert ever drops a script on your desks and asks for financing, please write him a check.)
The technical aspects of this disc aren't reference quality, but they're very good for a low budget indie film. There is a subdued, naturalistic quality to the film's look, and the transfer, which was obviously created from a defect-free print, captures this nicely. In fact, my only real beef with the transfer is the lack of anamorphic enhancement. There is no surround action in the Dolby Digital audio track, but that's perfectly fine for a film of this nature. Dialogue is always clear and intelligible, and Al Kooper's lively, jazz-flavored score sounds excellent; the stereo track isn't as open or spacious as the 5.1 track, but it's not bad. Extras include the film's trailer, a brief, very entertaining featurette chronicling Riegert's odyssey to get the film seen, and By Courier, Riegert's pitch-perfect adaptation of the same-named O. Henry short story. (This short film, which features Deadwood regular Garrett Dillahunt, was nominated for an Oscar back in 2001.) You also get an audio commentary from Peter Riegert, which, unfortunately, is rather spotty and dry. (I think it would have been nice had Riegert been joined on the commentary by co-writer Gerald Shapiro, author of Bad Jews and Other Stories, the collection of short stories on which their screenplay is based.)
While I think it's a great little film, I'm not sure King of the Corner is something you would want to plunk down twenty bucks for as a blind buy. But for those of you who are curious, this is a perfect candidate for a rental.
Not guilty. (Man, typing those two words sure felt good.)
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