Based on journalist A. E. Hotchner's memoirs of a Depression-era St. Louis boyhood, KING OF THE HILL resembles nothing so much as a tasteful, nostalgic TV special sponsored by the Hallmark Hall of Fame. In the hands of writer-director Steven Soderbergh (SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE), the
realities of poverty are rendered blandly palatable and eminently forgettable.
Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), a bright, introspective boy of about 12, excels at marbles and school but habitually lies to conceal his family's neediness. His father (Jeroen Krabbe), a struggling salesman, has moved his wife and kids to a cheap hotel while waiting to land a steady job with
the WPA (it is 1933). For Aaron, bad goes quickly to worse: his younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) is sent off to a home for poor boys; his tubercular mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is admitted to a sanitarium. The boy tries a variety of schemes, including breeding canaries and caddying with his
teenaged buddy Lester (Adrien Brody), in a vain attempt to win Sullivan back.
Business takes his father on the road, and Aaron is left alone with little food and no money. He finds some solace in a motley bunch of hotel residents, dancing with a sweet-tempered epileptic girl (Amber Benson), conniving with Lester to steal a suit of clothing, and smuggling a bottle of
whiskey to Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray), an eccentric bachelor who gets his kicks discussing Greek mythology with a jaded prostitute (Elizabeth McGovern). At the same time, the boy weathers the threats of a redneck bellboy who takes pleasure in padlocking the doors of evicted tenants.
When Aaron, too, receives an eviction notice, he has nowhere to turn: his father remains unreachable, Lester is arrested for theft, and Mr. Mungo, who has offered to help, runs out of credit and slashes his wrists. Starving and desperate, the boy barricades himself in his room and forges a
letter summoning his brother back home.
Mr. Kurlander returns in the nick of time. Having secured the WPA job and retrieved his recovering wife, he is ready to reassemble the family in a fancy new apartment. Before embracing a more promising future, Aaron allows himself a final gesture toward the past: he steals the keys to the
Once the independent darling of Cannes and Sundance, Steven Soderbergh seems, unfortunately, to have thoroughly cleansed his work of originality. KING OF THE HILL is pure corporate product--inoffensive, predictable, and bathed in the soft, rosy light that has become conventional in movies
dealing with nostalgic Americana. The effect of Soderbergh's direction and cinematographer Elliott Davis's camerawork is to sanitize--even romanticize--the condition of poverty, giving comfortable viewers a brief, mindless hiatus from any guilt they may yet feel about contemporary homelessness.
The film's pleasures lie in its faithful recreation of period detail and the craftmanship of a uniformly excellent cast. Krabbe, Gray, and Brody are particularly effective. (Violence.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Based on journalist A. E. Hotchner's memoirs of a Depression-era St. Louis boyhood, KING OF THE HILL resembles nothing so much as a tasteful, nostalgic TV special sponsored by the Hallmark Hall of Fame. In the hands of writer-director Steven Soderbergh (SE… (more)