King Of The Corner

on July 29, 2005 by Sheri Linden
The literary provenance is apparent in "King of the Corner," actor Peter Riegert's first feature in the director's chair -- and that's mostly a good thing. Based on Gerald Shapiro's short story collection "Bad Jews and Other Stories," this comic drama unfolds with a fine eye for behavioral detail and a keen ear for deadpan irony and unvoiced heartache, particularly of the secular Jewish variety. Riegert and Shapiro co-scripted the adaptation, and while the film possesses no particular visual flair, it more than compensates with a tender regard for its characters.

Riegert is perfectly weary and sardonic as Leo Spivak, a marketing executive, husband and father whose routine Westchester County angst begins to spiral into crisis mode. For decades he's conducted focus groups for products like spray-on pasta sauce and the Flaxman Voice Transformer Deluxe, a phone gizmo designed to deter would-be robbers by making women sound like Gregory Peck (long-time-no-see Steve Landesberg provides the impression). Like his fading father, Sol (Eli Wallach), a former salesman and onetime ladies' man, Leo hates his job. But he's comfortable in his misery and doesn't heed Sol's warnings about the ambitious young assistant (Jake Hoffman) who's nipping at his heels.

The action alternates between Leo's increasingly precarious career, his strained home life with wife Rachel (Isabella Rossellini) and daughter Elena (Ashley Johnson) and frequent visits to Sol at an assisted-living facility in Arizona. Wallach and the underrated Riegert, who share a natural, unfussy approach to acting, convey whole lifetimes of disappointment and conflicted affection in their scenes together. When Sol barks, "Save yourself, Leo!," he's talking about much more than office politics.

Leo takes what might be called an indirect approach to saving himself, plunging into some serious midlife acting-out during a focus-group trip to Philadelphia. After a few too many vodka tonics, Leo runs into the girl of his high school dreams (Beverly D'Angelo), setting off a sequence that probably worked more convincingly on the page. A return performance by the Flaxman Voice Transformer caps the episode, which accelerates Leo's slow-burn desperation.

Often flatly lit, "King of the Corner" is concerned not with cinematic statements but with observations about the human condition. Some facets of the story could be more illuminating -- Sol's relationship with a former girlfriend (Rita Moreno) would have more meaning if its timing were clearer. But when the characters click, as in the deeply felt work by Riegert and Wallach, and in Eric Bogosian's mournfully funny turn as a freelance rabbi with a failure complex, "King of the Corner" strikes deep chords of absurdist reality. Starring Peter Riegert, Eli Wallach, Isabella Rosselini, Eric Bogosian, Beverly D'Angelo, Jake Hoffman, Rita Moreno, Harris Yulin and Ashley Johnson. Directed by Peter Riegert. Written by Peter Riegert and Gerald Shapiro. Produced by Lemore Syvan. A Pursuit Films release. Comedy/Drama. Rated R for some language and sexual references. Running time: 91 min

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