American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Leo Spivak is trapped in the Bermuda Triangle of middle age: He hates his job, his father is dying, his teenage daughter is rebelling. He'd rather be the father, the child, or the boss -- anything but Leo, the man in the middle, well-paid and with a corner office, but devoting his days to market research. When he subjects instant stew to a blind taste-testing and the consumers say it tastes like dog food, they know how he feels most of the time.
"King of the Corner" is Peter Riegert's movie. He directed it, he co-wrote it, and he stars as Leo. It's a well-chosen project for one of his particular talents, which is to play intelligent, sardonic losers. One of Leo's problems is that he knows his goals are worthless: If his market-research firm makes its money testing lousy products on dim-witted consumers, why would he even want to be the vice president?
One reason might be that Ed Shifman also wants the job. Ed (Jake Hoffman) is his young protege, or "management trainee," and scores points by stealing Leo's ideas and taking them directly to the boss (Harris Yulin). Ed will work for half the money and won't be borderline depressive all the time. Together, they test products such as the "Flaxman Voice-Altering Telephone," which answers the phones of timid widows with sturdy male voices, including Gregory Peck's.
At home, Leo is worried about his daughter Elena (Ashley Johnson), who is staying out too late with an elusive lout named Todd, who would rather honk for her than come to the door. He's worried, but not as worried as his despairing wife Rachel (Isabella Rossellini), who seems borderline hysterical. Leo tries one of those excruciating conversations where he simultaneously advises Elena against sex and in favor of precautions. "Dad," she whines, "we're not doing anything." Uh-huh.