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4 reviews, 8 user ratings

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All the King's Men (2006)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Just What Louisiana Needs--Another Disastrous Blast Of Hot Air"
1 stars

Although it received much acclaim when it was released in 1949–it was nominated for a slew of Oscars and took home the prizes for Best Picture, Actor and Supporting Actress–the general consensus among cineastes in recent years is that “All the King’s Men,” Robert Rossen’s adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is one of the less-deserving titles in the pantheon. What once played as a searing indictment of political corruption now comes across as more than a little naive and Broderick Crawford’s blustery, scenery-chewing lead performance hasn’t aged well at all except amongst connoisseurs of camp. Therefore, the idea of producing a new film adaptation of the book is, in and of itself, not necessarily the worst idea to come out of Hollywood. However, in bringing it to the screen, writer-director Steve Zaillian has somehow defied the odds and has contrived to make a version that is even more flat-footed and ham-fisted than the original.

To his credit, Zaillian has assembled a powerhouse cast that is led by Sean Penn as ambitious Louisiana politician Willie Stark. An idealist who gets involved with politics out of what appears to be a genuine desire to help his fellow man, Stark is recruited by local political bigwig Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) to run as a third-party candidate for the office of governor. What he doesn’t realize is that he is a patsy whose campaign–the usual stew of bland sloganeering and empty promises–is a scam devised by the powers-that-be in order to split the opposition for the candidate they are really backing. Cynical news reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law) takes a shine to Stark and finally tells him that he is being used to ensure that things stay the way that they have always been. Out campaigning the next day, Stark throws away his script and starts telling it like it is with a fervor that so galvanizes his fellow “hicks” that it kicks off a groundswell of support that surprisingly carries him to victory on Election Day.<

Once installed, Stark finds himself no more immune to the corrupting influence of power as anyone else (not to mention the charms of an ice-skating burlesque girl whose routine is 50% Sally Rand, 50% Katerina Witt and 100% cheese) and his administration is hit with charges of graft and corruption. Eventually, he finds himself facing possible impeachment and calls upon Jack, who has left journalism to become his advisor, to dig up enough dirt on the influential Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins) to ensure that he comes out on Stark’s side during the hearings. This is more difficult than it seems because Irwin is both a longtime friend of Jack’s family (not to mention Jack’s godfather) and the rare political figure who doesn’t appear to have any skeletons in the closet–of course, this only means that when said skeleton is revealed, it will turn out to be a real doozy. At the same time, Stark is insisting that Jack recruit longtime friend Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo)–the idealistic son of a former governor and the brother of Jack’s youthful crush Anne (Kate Winslet)–to head up a highly publicized and expensive hospital construction project. Needless to say, there is more going on with all of this than meets the eye and it all comes to a violent boil that literally spills out into the corridors of power.<

Despite having been photographed by Pawel Edelman in a manner in which everything from a desktop to a whisky glass to Kate Winslet’s skin has been given the kind of stately amber glow that underlines the fact that we are watching a Serious Movie, “All the King’s Men” is nevertheless one of the dullest films, intellectually and emotionally, to come along in a while–it so fails to hit its targets that most viewers will be scratching their heads wondering what could have happened. For starters, it appears that while Steve Zaillian may know how to write a sprawling period epic (he won an Oscar for writing “Schindler’s List” and co-wrote “Gangs of New York”), he seemingly has no idea how to actually put one on film. Although the story unfolds over a period of years, there is no real sense that any time has elapsed and, as a result, Stark’s transformation from idealist to greedhead appears to be almost instantaneous. Characters are abruptly introduced (our first sight of Winslet and Ruffalo is so clumsily handled that I was almost convinced that the projectionist had threaded up the wrong reel) and then largely abandoned for long periods of time–Ruffalo’s character, in particular, disappears for so long that when he does finally have an important scene to play in the last 10 minutes, it has no impact since he has barely registered during the previous 110. Based on the available evidence, I suspect that Zaillian wrote and shot a much longer screenplay and, in an effort to get it down to a manageable length, chopped it up until he was left with little more than a Cliff’s Notes version that will seem incomprehensible to anyone not already familiar with the story. (This is especially bewildering when you remember that the film was originally scheduled to come out last fall until it was pulled to allow Zaillian to reedit it–one can only shudder to think what that version must have been like if he considers this cut to be an improvement.)<

A bigger problem with the film is that it is based on material that frankly hasn’t aged very well over the years. Back in 1946, when Robert Penn Warren published his original book, it was still possible to look upon our elected officials with something resembling idealism and his portrayal of corrupt politics, loosely inspired by the rise and fall of 1930's maverick Huey Long, came as a shock to many readers. Nowadays, of course, we have been witness to so many scandals over the years, both major and minor, that there can hardly been a person around who doesn’t look at the entire political process with cynical skepticism. As a result, we can hardly be expected to be stunned by the corrupt turns that Stark takes, especially when it appears that his greatest sins, according to the jumbled narrative, appear to be that he may have taken a bribe or two (as well as the occasional skirt). Perhaps instead of making it a period piece, Zaillian might have been better off transforming it into a contemporary piece in order to clearly illustrate how the themes of Warren’s novel still resonate today–one only needs to look at the recently concluded trial of former Illinois governor George Ryan, a Shakespearian tragedy far more rich and compelling than anything seen here, to get a look at what such a thing might have looked like.<

Even the cast–a group of players choked with award-winning talent–is unable to do much to help things out. Of them, the ones who come off the best are probably James Gandolfini (because his political thug oozes the kind of quiet power that makes you wish that he had been cast as Willie Stark in the first place) and Anthony Hopkins (because he seems to have made a private decision to simply throw away the script and instead do the entire role looking and sounding as if he were auditioning for the lead in “The Tom Wolfe Story”). As for the others, they are either miscast (Law, who can be good in the right role, is never believable for a second as a cynical journalist facing a crisis of conscience), misused (if Zaillian has accomplished anything here, it is the dubious achievement of giving us the first boring screen appearance from Kate Winslet) or so mangled in the editing that it is impossible to judge them fairly. (Even though she is playing the same part that earned Mercedes McCambridge a Supporting Actress Oscar, Patricia Clarkson’s role as Stark’s consultant has been so obviously truncated that you wonder why Zaillian just didn’t remove her entirely.)

Unfortunately, the worst performance by far is the one that you can’t avoid–Sean Penn’s braying turn as Willie Stark. Generally considered one of the best American actors alive today, Penn hits the wrong note with Stark early on and proceeds to bang that same note for two solid hours. I’m not just talking about the over-the-top qualities of his body-jerking, eyeball-rolling, scream-to-the-rafters approach to the character–after all, being cast in the role of a corrupt Southern politician is basically a license to overemote. The problem is that by going so far in this direction, it is impossible to believe for a second that a guy this buffoonish could have ever been elected into any position of power or could have settled down enough to pull off the intricate political scams that he is later accused of. In one of those odd coincidences that occurs in the life of a busy film critic, I happened to see “All the King’s Men” right after watching the similar “The Last King of Scotland,” which looks at the rise and fall of infamous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and was startled to discover that of the two, Idi Amin seemed like the more plausible and level-headed political creature.

Once presumed to be an awards-worthy contender, “All the King’s Men” is a Kingfish-sized failure that may be the biggest Louisiana-based disaster to hit since Hurricane Katrina–after all, both are filled with hot air and have been presided over by people who seem to have absolutely no idea of what they are doing. This is yet another refugee from the Island of Misfit Oscar Bait that, like such fellow castaways as “The Shipping News” and “Freedomland,”reminds us once again that you can assemble the most talented cast and crew in the world but that means nothing if they are in the hands of a filmmaker who has no idea of what to do with them.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14839&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/22/06 00:33:42
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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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