All the King's Men
United States, 2006
U.S. Release Date:
PG-13 (Violence, Sexual Content, Profanity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Kathy Baker
Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren
With remakes the likes of Poseidon, The Pink Panther, and The Wicker Man already dotting 2006's cinematic landscape, why not provide a new take on the 1949 political thriller, All the King's Men? In actuality, writer/director Steven Zaillian claims not to have based this on the earlier movie, preferring instead to return to the original source material. Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the King's Men is a loosely fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Louisiana governor Huey Long. Regardless of what inspired the screenplay, it's a bad fit. All the King's Men is a patchwork of poor choices and uneven results, the most obvious of which is its pacing. With inappropriate flash-forwards and badly placed flashbacks, All the King's Men lurches unsteadily forward amidst variable performances and impressive cinematography.
All the King's Men follows the rise to prominence of the "governor of the people," Willie Stark (Sean Penn), who wins the governorship of Louisiana in the early 1950s by a landslide victory. His pro-education, anti-business agenda earns him some powerful enemies, and charges of cronyism and corruption abound. Despite starting his political career as an idealist, Stark has become a ruthless politician, using blackmail and other forms of coercion to crush his enemies. His right-hand man is former journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law), who comes from money and is torn between supporting his friend and betraying his roots. Stark's most dangerous enemy is Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), who is Jack's godfather and refuses to bend when Stark attacks. Also in the mix are Jack's former flame, Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), and her brother, Adam (Mark Ruffalo). Anne's closeness to Stark deals a blow to Jack.
I have heard it said that Sean Penn delivers a great performance as Stanton, but that impression is in error. Channeling the pulpit-pounding essence of Jonathan Edwards, Penn spits fire and brimstone in one of the most laughably over-the-top portrayals of his career. With the exception of I Am Sam, I have never been embarrassed by one of the actor's performances until now. Penn's work is so one-dimensional and cartoonish that there's no hope of Stark becoming more than a blustering caricature. Adding to the problem is that Jack, the character at the film's emotional core, has no personality. Jude Law underplays the role, leaving us with a personality void. Kate Winslet's contribution is negligible. Only Anthony Hopkins emerges unscathed. The few scenes in which he participates are virtually the only ones in All the King's Men that ring with any degree of authenticity or urgency.
Although structure and tone are two of the movie's most glaring problems, there is another serious flaw. The relationship between Jack and Anne is inadequately developed. Since this is the fulcrum upon which many subplots rest, the cavalier manner in which it is presented (primarily through a bunch of throw-away flashbacks) is indefensible. It undercuts too much of the film's potential power. Further damage is done by a nattering voiceover narrative that quickly becomes annoying, although hardly more so than the overly melodramatic score contributed by James Horner. The only technical aspect worth singling out for praise is Pawel Edelman's cinematography. All the King's Men looks consistently great (although I could have done without the black-and-white directorial "flourish" employed during the climactic scene).
Part of the underlying problem with All the King's Men is the inherent difficulty of adapting such a complex novel into a screenplay of reasonable length. As good a writer as Zaillian is, the task is beyond him. There are some very good scenes (the key interaction between Jack and Judge Irwin is compelling), but the overall story feels paradoxically both rushed and overlong. Those familiar with the novel will undoubtedly agree that reading it is a more satisfying experience than watching this disappointing film. One expects more - much more, in fact - with cast of this caliber.