LA Film Fest Review: Life of a King, by Scott Nye
Films like Life of a King, which tells an inspirational story that happens to be true, at least where it counts, have become an unfair target amongst hip cinephiles. Hell, all I have to do is say “Cuba Gooding, Jr. teaches chess to inner city youth,” and you know the scope of this movie. Dogged for their predictability, melodrama, manipulative attempts to pull at the heartstrings, and unbelievably sunny attitude, the fact is, as far as I can tell, with this subject matter, that’s just an honest portrait. Eugene Brown (Gooding) really did bring the game of chess, which he learned during an extended prison sentence, to inner-city youth, and their lives did improve as a result. For these modest virtues, it could easily be kicked to the curb, but it is also that very modesty that keeps it from excelling. Ultimately, moved though I admittedly was by the film, it was nothing that could not have been accomplished with equal effect in a nice article on the same subject.
We meet Brown as he’s just coming out of jail, and quickly lands a job as a janitor at a local high school, alongside a friend, who recommends him. One afternoon, he’s needed to watch over a detention session, wherein he quickly establishes control over the students, effectively enough to make it a permanent assignment, and by the second day, he’s bringing in chess boards and pieces, welcoming anyone who wants to learn to the table. Soon, he builds quite a little chess club from that, and soon, they’re in a building all their own, open to others in the community – using the mantra “think before you move” as his guiding principle, Brown connects the game to life on the street, and the dwindling options open to someone who acts purely on instinct.
While relatively unconcerned with placing his performance in a defined reality, I have to admit to saying that I liked Gooding’s work here. Jerry Maguire has more or less endured over the years, but Cuba has not, seeming to only pick films that skirt the edge of respectability without ever actually achieving it. Looking at his filmography over the last decade, the boxes of any other prolific Hollywood star are checked – hard-edged drama, genre thrill-ride, based-on-a-true-story inspirational yarn, family-friendly comedy, cred-building indie film – and yet, the fantastic, unified way in which very, very few have made a dent in the public consciousness is singularly miraculous. I doubt this will change that narrative, but, having little experience with those intervening films, I was quite pleased to find that he’s still diving headfirst into the work. In his hands, Brown is a guy with absolute confidence in his principles and mission, but less certain that he’s able to carry them out, and there’s a vulnerability to Gooding that makes his presence compelling, even when the story is, perhaps, less so.
The usual machinations are there, from the promising-but-extremely-troubled young player, to the random complications, to the pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps montage, to the family that has some (very understandable) issues with their father, despite his desire to turn over a new leaf, but dammit if they won’t all come together in the end, and so forth. As I’ve written before, these genre elements don’t bother me in this type of film any more than those particular to the superhero, sci-fi, or thriller genres do in them. In all cases, these sort of by-the-numbers affairs are like sinking into a just-slightly-warmer-than-tepid bath; satisfying enough, if not terribly nurturing.
Life of a King will make its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Saturday, June 22nd at 7:00 at the Regal LA Live. The screening is free, with rush line only admittance.