There aren’t a lot of beats in King Ralph that are unexpected – if any at all – leaving the finished product feeling curiously empty. As the first starring role for John Goodman in a feature film, it’s a cute trifle for him to cut his teeth on but little more. It’s sort of amazing that austere thespians like John Hurt and Peter O’Toole were brought on as arch-nemesis and mentor, respectively, given that a shocking number of jokes rely on broad stereotypes about Americans. They’re not even stereotypes, really, so much as Goodman’s character being derisively called “American” whenever he shows any hint of flamboyant or colorful behavior. It’s an especially low branch to pick humor from, but on the other hand I guess the movie could have been filled with fat jokes or fart jokes. There’s that to be thankful for, I suppose.
The short of the set-up is this: after a tragic accident during a photo shoot which leaves the entirety of England’s royal family deceased, there is a scramble to find a relative – no matter how distant – who could rightfully take the throne as King of England. The deaths of the royal family members are shown as a prefacing joke only, though I wish that more time had been spent reviewing the facts of the case. Before starting the movie proper, the movie freeze-frames on the photograph taken at the exact moment that the family suffered their simultaneous fate. It’s a morbid start to the story, giving King Ralph the potential for extremely dark comedy but unfortunately this is quickly glossed over. Instead, we get right to the much more kid-friendly action of locating our man Ralph (Goodman), a slovenly American citizen singing showtunes in Vegas and in the midst of being fired in favor of a monkey act. But Ralph’s luck is about to change when he is informed that he is the closest living relative and therefore the rightful heir to the throne.
You might imagine that some kind of Blank Check style spending spree is in order, wherein the new symbolic head of the United Kingdom takes advantage of his new-found riches to build an ice cream swimming pool or purchase a pack of elephants, but instead Ralph’s first order of business is heading out to a strip club. Did I say kid-friendly? The striptease is short-lived and mostly unoffensive, serving primarily as a way for Ralph to fall inexplicably in love with one of the girls who promptly gives up her job out of a sense of modesty. He pursues her romantically throughout the majority of the movie, although no explanation is ever given for why he would being crushing on her so badly that he would put his safety and the reputation of the entire country in peril by repeatedly attempting to see her despite the PR nightmare that would ensue. Well, I take that back – there is a reason given: he just doesn’t care.
And this is where I repeat that it’s a light trifle of a flick, only aiming for a few chuckles before tying the plot up in a loose bow like we’re all expecting. Because in reality, I don’t care how much of a self-centered American idiot you are, there is no way that anybody would, say, greet a foreign dignitary from a newly formed African country by throwing one hand in the air for a high five and shouting, “Hey, holmes! Whas happenin’! Gimme quintet, brother!” But Ralph, you know, he not so refined as you and me so he unable to see the impropriety of this action. But that’s the point, right? There’s something inherently funny about culture clashes, and as the United States has fostered a culture which rewards insensitivity, it’s a perfect foil to the stuffy English expectation of maintaining a sense of decorum. There is no right or wrong, there is only tradition. Who’s to say that it’s wrong for the King to jump on top of a piano and start belting out rock n’ roll like Marty McFly at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance? It’s just unusual, not wrong – maybe we can all learn a lesson here about respecting others.
Ugh. Or maybe we should ignore the heavy-handed moralizing and empty-headed plotting and just sit back to enjoy what we’ve been given. It’s no filet mignon, but there is meat on these bones. O’Toole and Richard Griffiths (the Harry Potter series) have a good chemistry as co-workers beneath the King at Buckingham Palace, particularly in a scene that has news coming in that the people of Great Britian have taken to the new King’s peculiar ways, calling it a breath of fresh air rather than a desecration of the title. The two men begin to embrace each other in relief and celebration, but stop short and opt for the much more conservative act of sharing a glass of bourbon instead. And of course Goodman is charming in his role as the goofy American, only slightly removed from his role on “Roseanne”. Centering the film in England, rather than a made-up European state, also gives the movie a bit more heft than it would otherwise have because it provides the sense that there is some legitimate international weight to Ralph’s actions.
You’ll find trouble looking for anything to say in the film’s favor beyond that. The misunderstanding which causes the couple to break up for a short time comes at the exact moment when it needs to, the bad guy gets his comeuppance, and all of the good guys are allowed a moment to exhibit the depth of their virtue. And it is in no great hurry to check off its rote beats. With so few risks being taken, King Ralph feels immediately inessential. It’s difficult to imagine anybody championing the film. Neither good nor bad, it’s a movie that just is.