Apr 26, 2014

Review: Joe the King (1999)

Frank Whaley made his directorial debut with Joe the King and it feels a lot like a tribute to the French classic The 400 Blows. It's about a boy named Joe Henry who has the misfortune of being dealt the worst kind of cards. In short, he's a neglected kid trying to make his way in the world.

It's a really depressing movie, sort of like Angela's Ashes but in the United States depressing. Things don't ever stop from getting worse and worse for poor Joe. Joe the King probably wallows in self pity maybe a tiny bit too much, but that doesn't stop it from being an entertaining movie. It's helped along mightily by Noah Fleiss' performance as the titular character.


Genre: crime, drama
Directed by: Frank Whaley
Produced by: Jennifer Dewis, Scott Macaulay, Lindsay Marx, etc.
Written by: Frank Whaley
Music by: Anthony Grimaldi, Robert Whaley
Running time: 93 minutes
Production company: 49th Parallel Productions, Forensic/291 Films, Lower East Side Films
Distributed by: Trimark Pictures, Blackwatch Releasing, New Films International, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: N/A
Box office: $60,279 (North America)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Noah Fleiss, Val Kilmer, Karen Young, Ethan Hawke, John Leguizamo, Austin Pendleton, Camryn Manheim, James Costa, Jenny Robertson, Amy Wright, Richard Bright, Raymond De Felitta



Joe Henry has negligent parents; a mother who works all the time, offers no help and a father who is a violent alcoholic. Mike, his older brother is there but gives little to no support either. Additionally, money is a constant issue leading to Joe taking up some shady activities to help out.

Fleiss rocks the Canadian tuxedo and raggedy sneakers as if he were born in them. His character Joe Henry isn't really a bad guy because all he's just trying to take care of himself and his family. The end justifies the means right? The job that Joe has working under the table isn't enough which forces him to steal. He does this to not only help out his family but also to spend money for selfish reasons. He's a kid with practically nothing, so that leads to a lot of selfish splurging on junk food for the most part that makes him feel guilty. He's simply a sympathetic character that you can't help but feel for.

The abuse that he takes at times rings a little hollow, specifically the abuse from his teachers. Joe's dad is in fact the janitor at Joe's school so he is laughed at by his fellow classmates for this fact. Even teachers treat him like some kind of second rate citizen. I suppose it is possible that there are institutions with staff who behave like this. I mean not everyone is a saint, but I can't help but think that the scenes where Joe is mistreated by his teachers are a bit exaggerated.

There's a pretty good cast in Joe the King with Ethan Hawke, Val Kilmer and John Leguizamo being the main attractions. Val Kilmer plays the alcoholic father Bob Henry pretty well and brings some strong screen presence. Ethan Hawke plays a school counselor and Leguizamo is a fellow employee at the diner Joe works at. 

The dialogue is OK, but the swearing gets to be a bit too much. I think we can chalk this up to Frank Whaley being influenced pretty heavily from his time working in Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino. Comparatively to Pulp Fiction, the swearing in Joe the King just seems superficial and unnecessary, but that's a pretty unfair comparison to make anyway.

In the end though, Joe the King is an easy movie to appreciate. Joe is a super sympathetic character who's worth rooting for. Noah Fleiss gives a good performance and he's backed up by a good supporting cast. There are a few hiccups, but Frank Whaley does good work and I appreciate how he filmed this movie which places an emphasis on focusing on the characters' faces as much as possible. The fact that this is meant to be a semi-autobiographical piece on Whaley's life makes the whole story even more powerful. 



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