For a man who spends his life running focus groups, Leo Spivak's personal life is alarmingly unfocused. He's been a distant son, and now his relationship with his father has gone to pot. He's been an absent dad, and now he can't relate to his daughter. He's a careless husband who plays Russian roulette with his marriage. By his own definition, Leo is a "bad Jew." And indeed, King of the Corner, a serious comedy co-written, directed by and starring Peter Riegert, is based on two stories in Bad Jews and Other Stories, a collection by co-screenwriter Gerald Shapiro.
If portrayed by a more aggressive actor, Leo could be a pain. But Riegert is not so much an actor as a reactor. Leo is a distillation of all the best characters Riegert has played in the 27 years since he made his screen debut in Animal House. He is wry, bemused, befuddled, rueful, ironic. And director Riegert has assembled a knockout cast against which actor Riegert can react.
Eli Wallach is an irascible joy as the father -- how wonderful to see this old master receive the gift of a chewable role so late in life. Eric Bogosian is hilarious as a freelance rabbi. Harris Yulin delivers another of those suave, arrogant-bastard roles that he's all but patented.
Things -- and people -- keep disappearing, literally and figuratively, throughout the film. If they don't disappear, they fall out of the frame. What does it all mean? And isn't it nice to find a film that doesn't answer every question it asks? A small, meditative comedy, King of the Corner is not going to dazzle you with showy cinematography or a jackrabbit pace. But in its attempt to capture the hollow angst of the perennial outsider, a man who can tell you what he likes but doesn't know what he wants, the film strikes resonant chords. Riegert's modest debut feature has more heart and soul than all the Joel Schumacher flicks stacked end to end.
Back in 1970, years before he took up acting, Peter Riegert worked as an advance man for Bella Abzug, a little-known New York City activist who was running in her very first election. It was the beginning of a remarkable journey that would make her one of the most celebrated women ever to serve in the U.S. Congress. "She was amazing," Riegert says by phone from Manhattan, just home from a run-out to Chautauqua, New York, and en route to Atlanta. "She was the best I've ever seen at manipulating a crowd. She loved the tumult of it all. Being around Bella, I learned that politics is theater. An election campaign has a thru-line like a play or a movie. It lasts longer, but it has a dramatic tone."
Now Riegert is on a campaign of his own to sell King of the Corner. It came about like this: Five years ago Riegert directed By Courier, a thirteen-minute adaptation of an O. Henry short story that ended up receiving an Academy Award nomination for best live-action short subject. While screening the film in Nebraska, he was given a copy of Bad Jews and Other Stories. As soon as he read it, Riegert knew that he wanted to make his feature directing debut with this material.
Riegert proceeded to make an inexpensive independent film. Then, when he couldn't find suitable distribution, he decided to sell it in person, city by city. What began as an admittedly "nutty" plan has become a remarkable journey and one of the seminal events of his life. "It's been absolutely amazing," he says. "I booked the first three months of the tour myself. Then the Landmark theaters got enthusiastic about what I was doing, so they booked June, July, August and September." His voice betrays a sense of disappointment that the tour is winding down.
And what has Riegert learned from meeting with moviegoers? "I've learned that they hate it when theaters show commercials, and they don't like multiplex theaters where the noise seeps in from the next screen. But mostly I've learned that audiences are content-starved, that they're frustrated by what they're being offered and that there's a hunger for material that they're not getting."
What do they ask about your movie? "They want to know how I got such a great cast on such a low budget, and they ask questions about what specific moments in the movie mean. I tell them that I don't know what they mean. It's really their job to figure out if anything means anything to them. I'm not selling any moral or point of view; it's just a story that interested me."
The entire process interested him. Despite nearly three decades of moviemaking, directing this first feature was a revelation. "As an actor," Riegert explains, "your function is to help the director tell his story. But as a director, I learned that the movie is finished in the editing room. I already knew intellectually, theoretically, but I had never edited a film before. I've learned that editing is a kind of alchemy, because you're taking raw material that is based on a script that you wrote, but then the movie tells you what it wants to be.
"You can look at dailies every day, and they're always great because they don't exist in the context of the story. But once the story starts to have a heartbeat, scenes that you thought were wonderful sometimes reject themselves, and scenes that you thought very little of get retained. And you find that heartbeat in the editing room."
The current tour continues through September, at which point the campaign shifts gears and Riegert begins to hawk the DVD. He's not saying how he'll do that just yet, but door-to-door sounds like a distinct possibility.
Bella Abzug would be proud.