The merely depressing ultimately gives way to the contrived in Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's "King of the Jungle," which stars co-executive producer John Leguizamo in a showy role as a mentally challenged basketball whiz. Actors are understandably drawn to characters in some way disabled, with all their potential for pathos and heroism--and for winning Academy Awards. In "Rain Man," for example, Tom Cruise drew the really challenging, evolving role, but it was Dustin Hoffman who walked off with the Oscar as his essentially one-note autistic-savant brother.

Leguizamo certainly does give an admirably focused portrayal of a young man in his late 20s with an IQ of 70 who functions at the level of an 11-year-old. The problem with the film, which bears a 1999 copyright, is not Leguizamo but Rosenfeld, who lacks both the vision and fully drawn context to sustain bleak material that becomes darker and darker, only to reach for an upbeat finish when an open ending is far more appropriate. Rosenfeld, in only his second feature--his first was the well-received 1997 "A Brother's Kiss"--here tackles stronger fare than he can handle. Among Seymour Weinstein's (Leguizamo) handicaps are his long-divorced parents, the kind that makes one wonder how they ever got together in the first place. His father, Jack (Cliff Gorman), a hard-drinking poet more deadbeat than Beat, who sees his son about once a year, is in such profound denial about Seymour that he insists his son is a hustler, and just needs to act "grown-up" and get his own place where he can entertain girls.

Jack doesn't even notice what a skilled basketball player Seymour is--it is, in fact, Seymour's all-encompassing dream to become an NBA star. As well-played as it is by Leguizamo, Seymour's big scene--in which he finally stands up to his despicable father, a fully plausible dramatic development--is marred by having the childlike Seymour become articulate beyond credibility.

Although Rosenfeld regards Seymour's Puerto Rican mother, Mona (Julie Carmen), with more respect than Jack, she is herself a highly problematic parent.

Her sweet and saintly lover Joanne (played by Rosie Perez, Rosenfeld's wife) suggests that Seymour would be better off living in a group residence, but the possessive Mona quite literally won't hear of it. She cannot see that the longer she holds onto Seymour the harder it will be for him to adjust when she is no longer around, nor can she see just how dangerous it is for him to spend his time in New York streets, striving to play basketball with anyone who'll let him in a game.

Intentionally or otherwise, Rosenfeld has surrounded Seymour, who struggles mightily to think things through to the best of his limited abilities, by a lot of unthinking people, including Michael Rapaport as Francis, Seymour's one friend, a street vendor who actually tells Seymour he has a gun and where he keeps it, and Marisa Tomei as an NYPD detective so tough as to lapse reflexively into short-sighted nastiness. Only Perez's Joanne has a clue about what's coming down.

Rosenfeld's big point is to make us wonder whether the innocent Seymour will succumb to the evil of the streets. Yet even if he should, how could he be held responsible for his acts, considering his severely limited intelligence? His story demands a larger meaning, a sense of the poetic, than mere heart-tugging can provide, but Rosenfeld cannot provide it.

MPAA-rated: R, for strong language, some violence and drug content. Times-rated: mature themes, situations; inappropriate for younger teens.

'King of the Jungle'

John Leguizamo...Seymour

Cliff Gorman...Jack

Julie Carmen...Mona

Rosie Perez...Joanne

Michael Rapaport...Francis

An Urbanworld presentation. Writer-director Seth Zvi Rosenfeld. Producers Robert S. Potter, Scott Macauley, Robin O'Hara. Executive producers John Leguizamo, Jay Rifkin, Hans Zimmer, Stacy Spikes. Cinematographer Fortunato Procopio. Editors Kate Sanford, Andy Keir. Production designer Deana Sydney. Art director Steven Beatrice. Set decorator Tonero Williams. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

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