In King of the Jungle, John Leguizamo plays New York Knicks-obsessed Seymour, a mentally challenged man with the intellectual capacity of a ten-year-old. He makes his antic way through some of the meanest New York streets, watched over by his neighborhood-activist, lesbian mother Mona (Julie Carmen) and her girlfriend (Rosie Perez). When Mona is shot by an evil thug (Justin Pierce), Seymour disappears. Everyone rallies to try to find him, including his abusive stay-away father (Cliff Gorman), his best friend (Michael Rapaport) and a concerned cop (Marisa Tomei).

Writer-director Seth Zvi Rosenfeld is obviously fascinated by inner-city do-gooders and low-lifers and his film strains for street credibility. However, his story--apart from the lesbian aspect, perhaps--has nothing particularly fresh about it. Indeed, it's more than a little tiresome to see executive producer Leguizamo put himself through the tortured contortions of his character in a way to top Leonardo DiCaprio's efforts in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Robert De Niro's in Awakenings or Cliff Robertson's somewhat more genteel mental convulsions in Charly. Leguizamo, a natural actor, is a wiz at this, but cannot overcome the entire concept's unseemly aspects. Such characters are not in the most honorable of screen traditions, and Leguizamo's becomes the most slavishly one-note performance since Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man. Seymour is a near-Christ-like figure of martyrdom and abused innocence, constantly having to contend with being slapped around, called "retard" and having a boxcutter wielded in his face by a tough girl who insists on him repeating the words "I like to eat pussy." (The writing is on that basic level.)

Rosenfeld throws in Mona's activism for political correctness, but gives no clue as to the vindictive motivations of her killer (mere youthful aimlessness?). Pierce plays him as one mean, unreachable son of a bitch--namely, Annabella Sciorra, staggering about as a druggy whore--in his final screen performance. (He hung himself in July 2000.) Tomei's appearance as a supposedly tough-as-nails policewoman is completely risible; her tiny frame and lacquered appearance defy belief, despite her rough, Noo Yawk vocal intonations. There is some convincing tenderness in a brief scene with Carmen, singing a touchingly foolish lullaby to Seymour, and those she shares with Perez (Rosenfeld's offscreen wife). Perez, as usual, manages to be easily ingratiating and has a powerful dramatic aria during the murder that is the strongest scene in the film. More use might have been made of Rapaport's always welcome gamy humor. Gorman's performance has an exhausted quality that, however accurate to the character, ain't much fun to watch.

--David Noh