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2 reviews, 4 user ratings

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Joe The King
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Very Fine Directorial Debut"
4 stars

One of those films that deserved to have done much better at the box office, but the studio, having little faith in it, gave it only a sparse theatrical release.

Even if you don't recognize the name, chances are very good that you've seen actor Frank Whaley in at least one movie. He was the young man who shot Jack Nicholson at the end of Hoffa; he endured Kevin Spacey's vicious ire in Swimming With Sharks; he was Tom Cruise's best friend in Born on the Fourth of July; and he had his first starring role as the Target employee in John Hughes's Career Opportunities. Whaley looks about fifteen years younger than he actually is, giving him a boyish quality he's not likely to lose anytime soon. He's a fine actor but not a great one -- like Harrison Ford, he has an uncanny knack for ingratiating himself on-screen, resulting in a lightweight but appealing screen presence. With over ten years of acting to his considerable credit, he was finally given the chance to direct his first feature, Joe the King, which he also wrote. Whaley's working with very familiar material (emotional family abuse and its lingering effects on how the children eventually turn out), but he succeeds in avoiding most of the pitfalls of this sub-genre, resulting in a consistently entertaining, richly textured, emotionally complex film experience.

We see the film through the eyes of a teenager named Joe, the younger of two siblings whose family life is nothing to write home about. Their mom barely ekes out a living, while their father (Val Kilmer) is an abusive and irresponsible bum, who soon loses his job as the janitor at his kids' school. Joe himself works part-time as a dishwasher at a dump of a diner, while his older brother is becoming more and more ashamed at how poverty is causing him ridicule among his peers. Soon, Joe, assuming the same brand of recklessness as his father, starts stealing and getting into the kind of trouble that can land a kid in a correctional facility. On the surface the material isn't exactly bursting with originality, but Whaley shows a sure and steady hand in the department of storytelling: he keeps the focus tight, the narrative consistent, and he's a natural at shaping sequences and modulating performances from his talented cast. Contextually, there isn't a whole lot in Joe the King that's surprising; however, the manner in which it evokes the painful emotional turmoil of lower middle class family frustrations is insightful and appropriately tough and painful. Instead of struggling for obvious dramatic payoffs and over-the-top pathos, Whaley sits back and simply tells a story, and you can sense some genuine observation in just about every scene.

The acting, too, is first-rate. Noah Fleiss is wondrous in the title role. Given a lot of chances to overact, he offers up a restrained, thought-through performance, the kind you don't get from young actors in this day and age anymore. Karen Young is subdued and touching as the long-suffering mother, but it's Val Kilmer who's the standout. Spectacularly deglamorized, he contributes a penetrating, deeply-felt piece of work as an all-out lout who hurts all the more because he's completely aware of his weaknesses and how blatantly he's thrown the opportunities afforded him down the drain. There's a scene where Kilmer finally has a heart-to-heart talk with his son that could have come off as obligatory and maudlin; with Kilmer's superb control and actor's intuition, it wrings all the necessary tears it rightfully warrants. The film isn't perfect. There are some gimmicky plot developments late in the game that feel too neat and needlessly tacked on; the opening segment involving a fat female teacher pulling Joe's pants down in the middle of class and spanking him is poorly executed; and Ethan Hawke's supporting role as a guidance counselor is weakly drawn and serves no real purpose. But these are just minor quibbles. As a whole, this is a lovely film experience, one that sustains interest throughout and lingers in the mind well after the closing credits. And it marks Whaley as a fine director to watch in the future.

Worth taking a chance on.

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originally posted: 05/15/12 08:30:27
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User Comments

1/28/10 Dane Youssef Whaley & co. perfectly capture over put-upon adolescene in Upstate NY working-class life. 4 stars
3/26/03 Jack Sommersby One of the year's best films. Lovingly captures the loneliness of life. 4 stars
3/02/03 Chris Filled With Depressing Scenes And Terrible Dialouge This is A Real Stinker 1 stars
10/16/99 Mr Showbiz Val Kilmer delivers a bravura performance in Whaley's grimly realistic filmmaking debut. 4 stars
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  15-Oct-1999 (R)



Directed by
  Frank Whaley

Written by
  Frank Whaley

  Val Kilmer
  Ethan Hawke
  John Leguizamo
  Karen Young
  Camryn Manheim
  Austin Pendleton

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