King of the Jungle - He's No King, But That's One Nasty Jungle
Written: May 29, 2003 (Updated May 29, 2003)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Cons:Photography, Setting, End
The Bottom Line: The Bottom Line got lost in the jungle.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
I wonder how many actors are absolutely loath to play a disabled character. Particularly a mentally disabled character. The line between character and caricature is so razors edge fine that walking it successfully seems perilous at best. For every Dustin Hoffman in Rainman there is a Juliette Lewis in The Other Sister. For that reason alone, King of the Jungle is an ambitious project for John Leguizamo, who serves as both star and Executive Producer of this 2000 release.
Leguizamo plays Seymour, a young man of indeterminate age with an IQ of 70 and the living skills of a five year old. The movie opens with a close up view of Seymours morning routine, centering primarily around basketball, a sport that he is convinced he will play professionally. Seymour mumbles and fumbles and gets himself out to the kitchen, where his mother Mona (Julie Carmen) informs him that his father will not be picking him up that day as planned. It appears that this is not an uncommon occurrence. Mona is an outspoken activist against police brutality, and she shares her home with both Seymour and her partner, Joanne (Rosie Perez). As she holds a meeting to plan for an upcoming demonstration, Seymour continually interrupts. She handles each of his crises, all the while admonishing him not to leave the house. So of course he leaves the house.
Seymour, it seems, does this with some regularity, for he has many friends and acquaintances in the rundown urban neighborhood in which he resides. He is greeted in turn as a friend, an annoyance and a target to be cruelly taunted. This is Seymours world, his home and his neighborhood. His mother refuses to consider any sort of group placement for him, preferring to shelter him the best she can in her home. His beatnik throwback father, Jack (Cliff Gorman), refuses to believe that his son is in any way disabled, believing that he needs to be out on his own and simply grow up. The only objective voice of reason is Joanne, who delicately suggests that some sort of residential facility might be good for both Seymour and Mona. Seymour is seemingly impervious to the turmoil surrounding his care, needing only the reassurance from Mona that he will not be put in a place for crazy people. The story plays out as violence erupts into Seymours sheltered world, and both he and those around him are forced for at least a moment to consider how much things can change in the blink of an eye.
King of the Jungle is what I think of as a gritty urban drama, making full use of street life in the telling of its story. The setting becomes a character of its own, influencing every other character and driving the plot. In this case, the streets may be realistic, and they most certainly are gritty, to the point of being a touch too gritty. During a significant portion of the film we see the world as Seymour sees it, disjointed, confusing, sometimes entertaining, sometimes frightening, always fragmented. Add to this scenes of street violence and a generally over the top level of urban cacophony and the movie becomes nerve jangling. While this may well be the point, to show the world as Seymour lives it, its distracting in the film and detracts from the story, rather than adding to it.
John Leguizamo, as I mentioned before, has a fine line to walk in playing Seymour, and he does an admirable job. Too often, disabled characters are only truly disabled when the story needs them to be, and when the story needs a push; they all the sudden have some sort of savant like burst of normalcy. Leguizamo is remarkably consistent in his portrayal of Seymour, who is often confused and difficult to communicate with. Seymour doesnt become easier to deal with to ease the story along at any time. He remains intractably Seymour throughout. Julie Carmen does a nice job playing Mona as a protective mother and very involved community activist. Her stubborn insistence that Seymour remain with her is played very well, and Carmen makes us believe that she is doing what she thinks is best for the son she loves. I have to admit that I generally find Rosie Perez to be nothing less than spectacularly annoying, and let out an inward groan when I saw her name in the opening credits. I also have to admit that she is very good here as Joanne, giving one of the best performances in the movie. Her usual fingernails on a chalkboard hyper-nasal voice is simply gone. Her Joanne is a loving, albeit somewhat shallow and selfish, woman, who comes through when the going gets tough. The other principal performance is that of Cliff Gorman as Jack. Gorman makes Jack thoroughly unlikable as an absentee parent with an attitude who spouts banal poetry to insipid stoners. His treatment of Seymour is harsh and Gorman carries the weight well. Only at the end does the character fail to remain true, more a fault of the screenplay than the performance.
Other actors of note that play smaller roles in the film include Michael Rapaport as Francis, the street vendor who is truly a friend to Seymour, as well as Marisa Tomei woodenly playing the unlikely role of a cop and Annabella Sciorra in a throwaway role as a prostitute. Both Tomei and Sciorra are terribly miscast, and the characters suffer greatly as a result.
Writer/director Seth Zvi Rosenthal made an ambitious movie in King of the Jungle. The screenplay undoubtedly looked great on paper, and some of the performances are quite good. However, the movie fails to come together into the vivid and traumatic slice of life that it is undoubtedly intended to be. The frantic and choppy photography (Fortunato Procopio) meant to give a sense of Seymours world has the unfortunate effect of leaving the viewer slightly nauseated, which certainly doesnt help the movie as a whole. And the screenplay sort of just gives up at the end, giving in to the after school special sap that it valiantly fights elsewhere.
Overall, King of the Jungle makes a good attempt at a tremendously difficult story. The filmmakers dont back away from their characters until the very end, and most of the performances are solid. The overuse of the urban setting, the uneven photography and the final part of the screenplay ultimately sabotage the movie, making it significantly less than the sum of its parts. A valiant effort, but the film falls short.
*The DVD includes the theatrical trailer, biographies of selected cast and crew, as well as audio commentary from Leguizamo, Perez and Rosenfeld. There is also a remarkably short "making of" featurette that consists of Leguizamo and Rosenfeld sitting around saying how great all the actors are.
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