2½ stars (out of four)
For his feature-length directorial debut, "King of the Corner," character actor Peter Riegert has assembled quite the cast, starring alongside Isabella Rossellini, Rita Moreno, Eli Wallach, Eric Bogosian and Dustin Hoffman's son Jake. (Get used to it, kid.) But with the exception of the great bull Wallach, performances feel over-mannered and stilted -- set for the stage, not for the screen.
Based on a collection of short stories with a very witty title ("Bad Jews and Other Stories"), "King of the Corner" tackles the tres popular male breakdown, with its middle-aged leading man Leo Spivak (Riegert) wandering off the charts of acceptable behavior into the land of humiliation and shame.
Responsible for focus-grouping such inane products as a voice-altering phone -- it's supposed to protect little old ladies by lowering their voices to sound like Gregory Peck -- Leo watches his career go kaput, derailed by his younger, more aggressive assistant (Hoffman).
Things go south with wife Rachel (Rossellini) when Leo meets up with an old flame and are already bad with teenage daughter Elena, or so Leo and Rachel keep telling us. (With a lovely daughter whose only rebellion seems to be staying out past curfew, Leo and Rachel's wringing of hands bewilders. The girl still asks her parents for help with her homework, for crying out loud.)
Moments of this film reminded me of Alexander Payne's great library of male dysfunction -- "Election," "About Schmidt," "Sideways" -- not because "King of the Corner" actually reaches Payne's plane, but because I wish it had tried. As the reigning king of the contemporary breakdown, Payne has made a name by taking his loveably disgraced characters to the nth degree while maintaining at their core something totally (and shamefully) honest.
Riegert hasn't found that core in Leo, or in any of his characters, and though there are funny and poignant moments, they don't connect. With scenes that just sort of pile up, words hanging in the air, and humiliations that are never for a greater good (or bad), Riegert keeps us always at a safe distance.
The exception here is Wallach, who plays Leo's widowed dad, Sol Spivak, a former clothing salesman who loves Perry Como and lives out his last days in an Arizona nursing home, waiting, begging, praying to die. Loudly. Always loudly. With a huge personality.
Sol moved to Arizona as a younger old man, and there are great flashbacks of him in a cowboy hat and bolo tie, yakking to his East Coast son about the virtues of the Southwest. He's always giving his forlorn son unsolicited advice, and his blunt take on life (it'll suck everything out of you) gives the film much needed infusions of energy.
Late in the game, Leo meets a rabbi named Evelyn Fink (Bogosian). The guy's a drifter, picking up funeral, wedding and bar mitzvah work on the fly. He takes Leo to the dog races for counsel, more comfortable at the track than in a family room, and asks him about his connection to Judaism.
"I'm descended from a long line of crummy Jews," Leo answers, and for a moment I detected some guilt or remorse in his voice -- something that sounded mildly true. But then it passed, Riegert pulled away, again, and the moment was lost.
(Peter Riegert will host Q&A sessions after Friday and Saturday screenings at Landmark's Renaissance Place Cinema.)
"King of the Corner"
Directed by Peter Riegert; written by Gerald Shapiro and Peter Riegert; based on a collection of short stories by Shapiro; photographed by Mauricio Rubinstein; edited by Mario Ontal; production designed by Benjamin Conable; music by Al Kooper; produced by Lemore Syvan. An Elevation Filmworks release; opens Friday at Landmark's Renaissance Place Cinema. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: R (some language and sexual references).
Leo Spivak - Peter Riegert
Rachel Spivak - Isabella Rossellini
Elena Spivak - Ashley Johnson
Sol Spivak - Eli Wallach
Inez - Rita Moreno
Ed Shifman - Jake Hoffman
Betsy Ingraham - Beverly D'Angelo
Rabbi Evelyn Fink - Eric BogosianCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times