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In the Driver's Seat: Val Kilmer tries to be menacing as Noah Fleiss' abusive father.

Battered Shrimp

Frank Whaley's 'Joe the King' is an unlovable movie about an unloved kid

By Richard von Busack

MODELED ON Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows--and yet closer to Forty Lashes With a Wet Noodle--the unbelievable Joe the King is actor Frank Whaley's directorial debut. The film stars his ex-brother-in-law, Val Kilmer, who attempts--unsuccessfully--to get out of his box as an easygoing surfer.

Kilmer plays a violent, absentee father of the 1970s, whose son is the school pariah. The son is a poor little match boy who works half the night washing dishes at a diner and sleeps through classes during the day. All of which might be bearable if it weren't for the terror of his father's rages.

For the role, Kilmer sprouted a paunch and dropped his voice into a stoned growl to convince us that he's a veritable Stanley Kowalski. But Kilmer has never been the most menacing of actors. He's too inward looking, as self-absorbed as a Greek statue. Kilmer's best film roles embody the knowing narcissism of rock stars--as in the neglected farce Top Secret!, in which he played a blond Elvis, or as in his impersonation of Jim Morrison in The Doors.

If Kilmer ever wants to hit the dark side, he ought to spend more time researching the way people from the Sun Belt go bad, when they go bad. (Read Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler: a Calif-Floridian scumbag gets higher-minded and more spiritual and adopts better manners as his conduct grows more corrupt.)

The stunt-casting of Kilmer wouldn't have sunk Joe the King if we'd had a chance to feel why the kid used to be called a king, if there were some life in the underdog. But Whaley, working from a faux-realistic script of his own devising, makes the little hero, Joe (Noah Fleiss), a target, caught and punished for every scheme he tries.

The film contains no moments of exhilaration; doom hangs over Joe and finally catches up with him. The tone can be predicted from the opening. It's a wretched cameo by Camryn Manheim as a vicious teacher at a public elementary school. She gives our hero a bare-bottom spanking in front of his entire class--that's bloody likely.

And how likely is it that a restaurant that had hired a 13-year-old boy as a dishwasher--and, as we see, was in terror of being found out--would call the police on the same kid if they suspected him of burglarizing the place? How likely is it that a pawnbroker would buy stolen jewels from a 13-year-old? (Austin Pendleton is wasted as the pawnbroker, with essentially no dialogue but "Fuck you.")

Joe the King isn't the most keenly observed film, but it also doesn't possess the expressionist moments that might make us think that what we were seeing is the dream life of a troubled kid. The film is like a story of abuse that's told to impress, recalling the famous Monty Python routine about the four Yorkshire millionaires who try to undercut each other's horror stories of youthful poverty.

The winner of the contest (John Cleese) recites a surreal litany of torment: He lived through 26-hour workdays. He paid the factory owner by the hour to work there. Every night when he came home, he had to eat a lump of freezing-cold poison and be ax-murdered in his bed by his father, who sang the "Hallelujah" chorus as he did the bloody deed. After an impressed silence, one of his listeners comments, "You see? You try telling that to kids today, and they'll never believe you."

Joe the King (R; 100 min.), directed and written by Frank Whaley, photographed by Michael Mayers and starring Val Kilmer and Noah Fleiss, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the October 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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