July 14, 2005
Midlife Jew Behaving Badly
Cinema suddenly seems preoccupied with male midlife crises ("Winter Solstice," "In Good Company") and actor Peter Riegert joins the trend with his comic directorial debut feature, "King of the Corner."
"King's" aging man in transition is Leo Spivak (Riegert), a marketing executive confronting a job he loathes, a cantankerous father (Eli Wallach), an oblivious wife (Isabella Rossellini) and a rabbi from hell. ("Talk to me about job frustration.... You want to know what it's like being a rabbi in Sitka, Alaska?" he kvetches.)
The wryly sardonic film is far lighter in tone than its source, Gerald Shapiro's lauded, if mordant, 1999 short story collection, "Bad Jews." The book moves beyond Roth and Bellow to depict flawed losers who behave badly but are mostly lost, battling family and career disasters while cut off from their Jewish roots.
"My Leo is someone who knows enough to do the right thing, but often can't bring himself to do it," said Shapiro, who teaches Jewish literature at the University of Nebraska. "If I knew him, I probably wouldn't want to befriend him. But Peter's worldview is brighter than mine. The difference between Leo in the book and the movie is the difference between Peter and me."
The author and director, who co-wrote the screenplay, are a study in opposites. The upbeat, 58-year-old Riegert ("Animal House," "Local Hero") told The Journal he grew up in a progressive, atheistic New York home and confidently describes himself as "just Jewish." Even so, he's best known as "Crossing Delancey's" iconic pickle man, the anti-Bad Jew -- "a character who does not compromise his Jewish identity, yet wins Amy Irving," Shapiro said. "He is at peace in his world, very much like Peter is."
The 55-year-old Shapiro, meanwhile, said he has always felt uncomfortable in his own skin. He's a Jew in exile, from the anti-Semitism he experienced growing up in Kansas City to the readers who have told him, "You're just like that Philip Roth, a self-hating Jew."
"In my cosmos, you earn your redemption slowly and painfully, and you struggle until the day you die," Shapiro said. "Which is one reason my fiction's success is limited; it's like trying to sell poisoned hotcakes."
Riegert, nevertheless, said he was drawn to the Spivak stories because "Leo is a man wrestling with who he is."
So was the actor, as he faced the midlife dwindling of his own career several years ago.
"The parts became fewer, the competition greater, and I was worried that I was losing my love for acting," he said. "I didn't feel I was being asked to do anything challenging, but I wasn't going to sit around, waiting for the phone to ring."
If the film poses the question: "Should you paint yourself into a corner, how do you escape," Riegert's answer was to direct. In 2000, he was Oscar nominated for his short, "By Courier," based on an O. Henry story, while searching for material for his feature debut. He found it when Shapiro sent him a copy of "Bad Jews" as a thank you for work such as "Crossing Delancey," which he taught to prevent his mostly non-Jewish students "from slitting their wrists after a semester of Jewish angst."
Of why he was drawn to the book, Riegert said, "The title made me laugh. I thought, 'If the material is half as funny, perhaps I've found what I'm looking for.'"
He read "Bad Jews" on a cross-country airplane trip in 2001 and was so impressed that he immediately phoned Shapiro about collaborating on a script.
Over the next couple years, the two worked on the screenplay -- mostly amicably but sometimes fiercely arguing over the tone, which was to reflect Riegert's affably ironic persona. "In the end, it was a collaboration in the best sense of the word," Shapiro said. "But I'd be lying if I said it was easy. Peter couldn't play the character as I wrote him, and for a fiction writer, there's pain attached to any adaptation."
After shooting the $400,000 film, Riegert overcame his own obstacles when good distributors ignored the movie. Unwilling to accept a straight-to-video release, he brashly marketed the movie himself by taking it on the road for eight months, conducting post-screening discussions to help build word of mouth.
"Call me Jack Kerouac with film cans," he said.
Shapiro very much likes the film but admits it's hard for him to watch.
"All I see are arguments I won or lost," he said. "I guess that's the mark of an amateur [screenwriter]," he said.
Riegert had a different experience. "It's exhilarating to be doing something new and to be learning all over again," he said.
The film opens July 29 in Los Angeles.