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‘King of the Hill’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 10, 1993

If Steven Soderbergh is anything, he's unpredictable. After his Cannes prize-winning "sex, lies, and videotape," a deadpan, gender battle of manners, Soderbergh made "Kafka," a compendium of Kafkaesque themes centered on a lowly clerk in Prague. Now, with characteristic variety, Soderbergh has reinvented the creative wheel with "King of the Hill."

It's his best work by far.

For one thing, the movie, based on A. E. Hotchner's 1972 book, has more humanistic blood coursing through its veins than its predecessors. Set in a seedy, Depression-era hotel in the Midwest, it abounds with colorful, plaintive characters, from depressive eccentrics to oppressive bellboys.

In the midst of these Lower Depths, emerges 12-year-old Jesse Bradford, whose down-and-out family is holed up at the hotel until times get better. With his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) suffering from consumption and his luckless-salesman father (Jeroen Krabbe) out trying to sell wickless candles, Bradford is left to his own devices.

A compulsive weaver of tall tales, he relies on his imagination and a growing street resourcefulness to enrich his life. When he's not telling people his father has a classified position in the government, he's learning how to plunder the confiscated possessions of non-paying customers -- courtesy of young neighborhood shyster Adrien Brody.

Bradford's family leaves him, one by one. Strapped for cash, Krabbe is forced to send Bradford's younger brother (Cameron Boyd) away to a relative. Bradford's mother goes to recuperate in a sanitorium; and Krabbe gets a job out of state.

Completely alone, Bradford is forced to fend for himself without a penny for food or rent. While trying to keep wolf-at-the-door bellhop Chris Samples from confiscating the family property, Bradford has to find food, attend school and keep his inquisitive teacher (Karen Allen) from finding out he's essentially destitute.

In the meantime, he gets to know his strange neighbors, including alcoholic Spalding Gray, a friendly, deteriorating gentleman who offers ladies of the evening (including Elizabeth McGovern) meals for their in-kind services. Waiting hopefully for relief -- his mother's improved health, a decent job for his father -- Bradford finds himself growing up.

With its murky corridor atmosphere, and cameraman Elliot Davis's dusty, faded surfaces, the movie has passing similarities with the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink." But "Hill" is far more enlivening. Soderbergh fills these hallways with similar, prewar misery, but far more piquant detail and grace. The collective plight of Bradford and his family, far from being schmaltzy or trite, is shown in absolute, objective terms.

Bradford, an engaging youngster (who has played many a movie child) gives his role a touching, thoroughly believable center. Whether he's telling false stories about his great friend Charles Lindbergh, psychosomatically sating his empty stomach by cutting out -- and eating -- magazine pictures of food or facing his parents at the end of the movie, this movie is memorably his.

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