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With: Noah Fleiss, Val Kilmer, John Leguizamo, Ethan Hawke, Camryn Manheim, Austin Pendleton, Peter Anthony Tambakis, Harlee Ott, Travis J. Feretic, Benjamin Styx, Alice Blythe, Linda Key, Rob Bergenstock, Karen Young, Richard Bright, Amy Wright, Max Ligosh
Written by: Frank Whaley
Directed by: Frank Whaley
MPAA Rating: R for language and abusive situations concerning a child
Running Time: 93
Date: 01/22/1999
IMDB

Joe the King (1999)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Call of the Child

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Frank Whaley is the latest in a long line of 1990's actors-turned director, but his film is not what one would expect. Whaley is a goofball actor, famous for his stylish, pent-up geek roles in films like The Freshman (1990), Career Opportunities (1991), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Swimming With Sharks (1994). But not only is Joe the King not goofy at all, Whaley is not in it. He's crafted a dreary, devastating portrait of a young boy whose chances in life are nil thinks to his dysfunctional family.

Noah Fleiss plays 14-year-old Joe (Peter Tambakis plays Joe at 9 for a brief prologue). He smokes and has a job in a restaurant that keeps him out late, oversleeping for school. To make matters worse, his drunk old man (Val Kilmer), a drunken janitor at Joe's school, owes everyone money, including all of Joe's teachers.

The film opens with Camryn Manheim (from TV's "The Practice") playing a mean teacher who makes her students talk about their parents' jobs. From that scene, Joe the King may seem like a surreal comedy, but it turns deadly serious. Joe's older brother (Max Ligosh) has discovered girls and has no use for a crummy little brother. Joe has only one friend, Ray (James Costa) a skinny kid with glasses and buck teeth whose mother is a drunk. A school guidance counselor (Ethan Hawke) tries to get through to him, but can't. Even the owners of the restaurant where he works treat him like dirt. The bulk of the film deals with Joe's father throwing a tantrum and destroying all of his mother's beloved blues records. Joe (who plays the drums in his school band) tries to raise the money on his own to replace his mother's records. Unfortunately, his methods of raising cash don't agree with the societal norm.

Joe the King takes place in the 1970's, and everything has a tired, worn-out look. Whaley really gives us a sense of place, where the grass grows out of cracks in the sidewalk, and kids wear the same pair of Converse Chuck Taylors until they stink and the soles fall out. However, the movie never seems to find a connection, either for itself or for us. We never find out what really makes Joe tick. We know why he is screwed-up (because of his environment). But who is Joe? The movie really doesn't know. Why Whaley chose this as his first film (it's his own original screenplay) is a mystery. Still, I can't help admiring the film for its bravery and its pace. Congratulations to Whaley for even getting it made.

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