Peter Riegert's directorial debut King of the Corner is a modest film, and a messy one, but then again it's a film about a modest, messy life. The life belongs to one Leo Spivak, an aging salesman negotiating passive-aggressive relationships with his job, his father, his wife, his child, and himself. Like its hero, the film barely keeps it together, but ultimately emerges changed by its own journey.
The mild dislocation of King of the Corner owes something to its origin as a short-story collection: Bad Jews and Other Stories, by Riegert's co-screenwriter Gerald Shapiro. Still, Riegert successfully builds his film around Spivak, who Riegert plays as a man who hasn't yet realized that he's reached the end of his rope. Leo's behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable as he deals with job pressures (a protégé, played by Jake Hoffman, with cutthroat instincts) and Leo's ailing father (played by piss and vinegar by screen legend Eli Wallach).
It's apparent that Leo's protégé will soon replace him, and Leo will soon replace his father. Implicit is the cycle of life, the relationship of aging to survival of the fittest, and the question of one's reaction to it: go gently into that good night or rage, rage against the dying of the light? Though Leo's self-discovery is slow and awkward, he narrowly chooses the more dramatic option (or perhaps it chooses him). As such, the film's last act is the film's most memorable and satisfying.
Isabella Rosselini plays Spivak's nervous-nellie wife, who suffers the worst from Leo's midlife fumblings (Ashley Johnson plays their advantage-taking daughter); Rita Moreno fulfills a similar archetype as the patient paramour of Leo's father; and Beverly D'Angelo plays an object of Leo's high-school affections who, after bumping into him on the street, gets far more than she bargains for by enduring his eager chat. Though women play their foils, King of the Corner's modern men must struggle into maturity on their own.
Reigert and Shapiro mine delicate humor from unpleasant situations, and the film finally takes off in its last act, involving a businesslike rabbi (a very amusing Eric Bogosian) and Leo's very public existential confrontation with the inescapable natural order. Yes, Spivak is a "bad jew," but he's figuring out, at last, what it means to be a good man. Riegert gives Leo pleading eyes that finally stop scanning others for what he can only find when he reluctantly looks inward. That's him in the corner, defending and improving upon a family legacy.