Director's lack of vision reduces 'King of the Hill' to royal failure

October 01, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"King of the Hill," which opens today at the Rotunda, jus keeps getting curiouser and curiouser and badder and badder. A highly idealized account of a pre-adolescent boy's struggles to survive the temporary dissolution of his family in the high-Depression St. Louis of 1933, it was written and directed by no less an auteurist than the Steven Soderbergh, who astounded the world with "sex, lies and videotape" three years back.

This film, his third, is an even stranger choice for Soderbergh than his second film, which was the much-loathed "Kafka," a fictionalized, fanciful biography-thriller about the Czech author that attracted the ire of pedants and the uninterest of non-pedants the world over.

So what is Soderbergh doing in an immaculately created St. Louis of the '30s? Beats me. Worse, on the evidence: Beats him.

It's as if he's forgotten the incision and the vividness and the current of erotic tension that gave "sex, lies and videotape" its extraordinary impact. By comparison, "King of the Hill" is a drunken elephant, a huge and expensive epic so unsure of its own identity it seems to change tones every three minutes. And it's boring.

The movie is just flat, thin and under-dramatized. It rushes helter-skelter through anecdotes, all equally weighted whether horrific or comic, and calls up and abandons characters with equal lack of serious purpose, never finding a consistent tone or much of a story line.

In fact, it's the most poorly directed film I've seen in years. Soderbergh mistakes zany camera angles for drama: The movie is a festival of tilted cameras and strange, foreshortened close-ups completely unrelated to the commonplace contents of the scene. He seems almost congenitally unable to photograph anything straight on. Every frame is cranked to left or right, to little purpose except to establish the director's artistic intentions.

The primary setting is St. Louis's decaying Empire Hotel, a kind of warehouse of human woe at the end of the line, where the human detritus of the Depression come to rest in one last desperate attempt to fight the tide that sweeps them toward the ubiquitous Hoovervilles springing up in alleys and vacant lots all over America.

The Kurlanders, a dispossessed family with aristocratic airs and a German-Jewish background, are temporarily ensconced, though, as their father keeps telling them, they really belong in posher digs up the street. Their name, however, should be the Jobs, for misfortune bedevils them fiendishly. Soon Sullivan, the youngest boy, is sent away to an uncle, for the father (Jeroen Krabbe) can no longer support them on a meager novelty-item door-to-door salesman's salary, even though he maintains he's about to be appointed a traveler for the esteemed Hamilton Watch Co.

The mother is sent to a sanitarium. Finally, the father's job comes through and he's got to start traveling. This leaves our hero, young Aaron (Jesse Bradford), home alone.

I never thought I'd say this, folks, but the movie made me actually pine for Macaulay Culkin setting fire to dumb burglars. Instead, Jesse is sentimentalized as a creative genius and all-around best boy, who's ever able to win at marbles, get straight A's, win the hearts and minds of his eighth-grade companions and have zany adventure after zany adventure. His one strangeness -- a tendency to tell self-aggrandizing tales -- is marked off as a minor eccentricity. But at the same time, Soderbergh presents the Empire as a kind of American hell, and in each room a grotesque and seedy misadventure is played out for the edification of young Jesse.

If you're expecting some kicker -- that Jesse grew up to be some great writer and the tales of the Empire were the core of his work -- boy, are you in for a disappointment. Indeed, since the book is based on a memoir by the fellow, it's clear that Jesse grew up to be A. E. Hotchner, mediocre Saturday Evening Post hack and, more infamously, a fraudulent Hemingway chronicler. Hotchner became notorious in the mid-'60s when his "Papa Hemingway," a "biography" of Hemingway based on purported interviews with the writer, was revealed to be a patchwork job of plagiarism and out-and-out bunco, so infuriating that Mary Hemingway sued to prevent its publication. He was Clifford Irving before Clifford Irving got around to it.

In Jesse's fanciful tales to his friends, you see the origins of the larceny. Soderbergh thinks its "creative" and admirable. To me, it's just the start of something pathetic.

"King of the Hill"

Starring Jesse Bradford and Jeroen Krabbe

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Released by Gramercy

Rated PG-13

*

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