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All the King's Men (2006)
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by Erik Childress

"May As Well Have Just Called It 'Humpty Dumpty'"
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The impetus behind remaking an Oscar-winning best picture surely was more than just replicating its success with statuettes.While ideas of sacrilege are a foregone conclusion when taking such steps, the truth is that All the King’s Men remains as prescient today as it did back in the 40s. Even if its storytelling is little more than an overwrought melodrama, its take on politics and corruption will continue to hold up without the need for film to remind us that public servants can become corporate sponsors before the first vote is cast. That doesn’t mean that a good kick-in-the-teeth isn’t good for American audiences, but when the decision was made to delay Steven Zaillian’s remake from the prime Oscar season of ’05 to the early Oscar season of ’06 the smell of disappointment began to ruminate despite the all-star cast and a director with a small, but notable resume. Ironically, the film arrives much like its anti-hero Willie Stark with a lot of passionate arm-flailing and a populace destined to be disappointed in what he ultimately delivers.

Based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren novel which inspired the 1949 award-winner (itself inspired by Louisiana Governor Huey Long), the new version inexplicably opens on the road to a key confrontation thus immediately drawing attention to its editing (no doubt feverishly tinkered with.) Skeptical newspaper man, Jack Burden (Jude Law), is assigned to write a story on a local man trying to re-introduce a little homespun idealism into the race of politics. Willie Stark (Sean Penn) is just your average bloke who drinks orange pop with two straws and thus inspires little against the powerhouses who already run the state.

After losing his first go-round, Stark is approached by Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) who encourages him to run again but has a private agenda to use this independent to split the vote Ralph Nader-style and get the candidate in his pocket into office. When Burden and his political advisor, Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson), spill the beans, Stark turns into a different animal. Arms waving and decibel raising akins him to the “hicks” he proclaims himself amongst and almost overnight, Stark becomes a sensation, gets elected and then becomes something else altogether.

Lord Acton’s “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is the age-old conceit personified by the original incarnations of this story. Sad and usually true, but Zaillian’s version hitting theaters has neither the sadness nor the truth behind Stark’s fall from grace. Something has clearly been lost in the transition between Stark’s electoral victory and his predilection towards coercion. Robert Rossen’s version had Stark losing twice before finding success with the people and then declared his path towards becoming whom he fought against in the name of the common good – using money from the big boys to support his plans for the community. Compromise was the name of the game before going sour. Zaillian’s Stark comes off more like a man who put up a front to get elected and his term of office only epitomized the man he always was – with a taste for alcohol and one night affairs with dancers on ice, floor or whatever.

It’s not helped by the blanks being filled in not with Stark’s homelife or inner-office dealings but by Burden’s guilt over his failed relationship with childhood sweetheart, Anne (Kate Winslet). Rossen did no favor to this story either by having Joanne Dru leave each scene by crying and running away with spaghetti arms, but Zaillian does a greater disservice by treating much of it with flashbacks to their more innocent time. Again, the editing throws off the pace, bringing no gravity to Burden’s misgivings over not jumping on the naked-and-willing Anne when he had the chance and turning her doctor brother, Adam (Mark Ruffalo) into such a cipher that it produces laughs when he’s described as becoming “more reclusive and strange” since anyone familiar with the original knows Adam’s role through all of this.

Law’s Burden is also as indecipherable, played with such a cynical eye throughout that we never believe that he would have followed Stark even after losing his newspaper gig (another truncated plot point.) Clarkson’s advisor has been almost completely lost despite being the true cross of cynicism and political power in the original. Only Anthony Hopkins just by being the atypical Hopkins registers as the voice of reason in his scenes with Law even while the denouement of their relationship fails to match the shock and sorrow from the ’49 version and is instead replaced with unnecessary foreshadowing and an implied revelation that further distances us from Burden in the midst of the one mournful moment in the film. What’s most disheartening about all of the film though is the performance by Sean Penn who seems just right with his personal thoughts of our current system to play a man of change who pays for his misdeeds. Instead of passion, Penn fashions Stark as more of a dictator-type – and that’s just during the scenes when we’re supposed to like him. His mannered finger-pointing, shouting, waist-like-a-hula-hoop become a point of Perot-esque parody as he gets louder and broader with each passing speech until you can imagine his words being put into some forthcoming rap remix. I can’t think of a bad performance that Penn has ever given, but I know where to go if he ever gives another one.

All the King’s Men is a story for every time and will be revisited in one form or another for decades to come as long as money controls the political prism. It’s understandable how Zaillian and cinematographer Pawel Edelman wanted to create the toned-down colors of a ‘40s melodrama, but even with James Horner’s blasting score, have subjugated mood above all and a flabbergastingly dull one at that. The screenplay is filled with some interesting dialogue scenes which would work just fine for anyone auditioning for the Actor’s Studio but which never come together to accentuate the fraud of impracticality in the offices of the people. As the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Schindler’s List who banged a home run with his directorial debut (Searching for Bobby Fischer) and a solid double with A Civil Action (also about how corporate interference is destroying small-town America), I can only believe that Zaillian ran into the same type of meddling which neutered a more epic tale for the sake of a box-office friendly running time. Now wouldn’t that make for a more timely screenplay about the country we live in today?

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14839&reviewer=198
originally posted: 09/22/06 00:28:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/23/07 Charles Tatum Brits as Southerners never works, see "Cold Mountain" 2 stars
3/12/07 Anthony Feor It has the potential to be what it wants, however, the film does not want to work for it 1 stars
12/20/06 MabMAB Being very familiar with the book I had no trouble following the story and enjoyed it. 4 stars
11/16/06 Marianne Nunnally Muddles the story to near-incoherence, leaving audience all but clueless to what gov. did. 2 stars
10/16/06 William Goss Shameless Oscar bait starts steady, soon rambles. Hey, Penn: Tom Waits wants his hair back. 2 stars
9/27/06 bob mann penn great 4 stars
9/23/06 Lyndsey Very Boring. What a shame that it couldn't live up to the original movie or the novel! 1 stars
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  22-Sep-2006 (PG-13)
  DVD: 19-Dec-2006



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