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MOVIE REVIEW : 'King Ralph': A Majestic Misfire for Goodman

February 15, 1991|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"King Ralph" (citywide) is a movie about a lovable boor at a royal tea party. But there's no real boorishness in it, little royalty and not much love.

Written and directed by David S. Ward, best known for his Oscar-winning script for "The Sting," this film plays like a shameless commercial enterprise gone expensively sour. It's an empty, puffed-up blob of a comedy, so devoid of humor that when star John Goodman does his show-stopper--a rousing, belly-flop-on-the-piano rendition of Little Richard's "Good Golly, Miss Molly"--it's a blessed but only temporary relief.

Goodman deserves this moment. Most of the rest of the time, he seems to wear his first big-movie star part like a corset. His role of Ralph Jones, a tubby Las Vegas cocktail-lounge pianist elevated to the throne of England when a photographic accident wipes out the Royal Family, is a part John Candy might have waltzed through. But Goodman doesn't get the jolly vulgarian's persona that might have made his part bearable. His moves are too calculated; he's not a convincing bozo.

As Willingham, the royal etiquette adviser, Peter O'Toole takes the opposite tack, skating over his lines with the serene equipoise of a man trying to remove himself from the foolishness of life and movies. There's a third excellent actor in "Ralph," John Hurt, and he goes down-and-dirty with the material. Playing the chief villain, Graves, Hurt uses his sneaky rotter's smile to create something close to a lounge impression of Ronald Colman as an effete meanie. To say these three fine actors are wasted is putting it mildly. "Trashed" is more like it.

"King Ralph" almost burbles with anachronisms. This might have been a story designed by TV-sitcom hacks back in 1967 as a Jackie Gleason vehicle. (Ward probably realizes it; he mentions Gleason's Ralph Kramden in a throwaway line.) Yet, if Ward aspires to the level of Norman Krasna or Stanley Shapiro, he muffs that too. All the plot twists are emptily functional: Graves' nasty schemes to undermine Ralph, Ralph's oafish behavior at royal functions, and his clandestine courtship of his working class dream girl (Camille Coduri as Miranda, a stripper who won't strip.)

The movie seems to be executing great care not to miss a single cliche. There's a bumbling fat secretary (Richard Griffiths), a tough bodyguard and the usual Hollywood-British collection of titled twits. There's a bowling alley in Ralph's private quarters and tabloid paparazzi . Late in the movie, Ward hauls in what are supposed to be the royal family of Finland, who get offended by Ralph's rock 'n' roll gyrations and refuse to marry into British royalty.

Even that part of the story seems pre-1967. If the actual British Royal Family have occupied the tabloids almost nonstop for the last several years, why should Ralph's little indiscretions prove ruinous? This film doesn't even make satirical sport of the fact that British royalty are now almost entirely ceremonial and ornamental. One might imagine, given the deference of his statesmen and Ralph's machinations with an African monarch, that the King of England actually ran the country.

Beyond a certain affected literacy, "King Ralph" has almost none of the qualities that made Ward's "Sting" script a contemporary classic. In fact, if you saw the two movies back to back, you might believe they were written by different people: a brilliant young talent and his rich uncle, who'd gotten lazy and fat writing for TV. "Ralph" doesn't even seem much connected to Ward's previous work as writer-director: "Cannery Row," a failed but exquisitely designed Steinbeck adaptation and "Major League," a corny but popular baseball-misfits comedy.

There's a sub-populist vein here that might explain Ward's interest and the involvement of producers Sydney Pollack and Mark Rosenberg. But it's phony populism, a condescendingly pro-slob fable. What "King Ralph" (rated PG for language and a mild sexual situation) actually says is that British royalty and American yahoos should keep to their own spheres. Why? Were the filmmakers trying to win a royal command performance? It's only when Goodman gets to sing "Good Golly, Miss Molly" that this styleless, opportunistic movie briefly gets any true style. Otherwise, it's a bland botch, majestically misfired.

'King Ralph'

John Goodman: Ralph

Peter O'Toole: Willingham

John Hurt: Graves

Camille Coduri: Miranda

A Universal Pictures presentation of a Mirage/JBRO production. Director/screenplay David S. Ward. Producer Jack Brodsky. Executive producers Sydney Pollack, Mark Rosenberg. Cinematographer Kenneth MacMillan. Editor John Jympson. Costumes Catherine Cook. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Simon Holland. Art director Clinton Cavers. Set decorator Peter Walpole. With Richard Griffiths, James Villiers. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (language, mild sexual situation).

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