Blue blood journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law, "Closer") is drawn to the story of Willie Stark (Sean Penn, "Mystic River"), a Louisiana parish treasurer trying to give voice to the plight of the working man and big money corruption. When those big powers try to use Stark as a gubernatorial candidate to split the 'hick' vote, wily Willie turns their tactics against them and wins by a landslide. Burden becomes Stark's right hand man and witnesses the effects of power and compromise on "All the King's Men."
It's impossible to know how much tinkering has been done to this film which was initially supposed to be part of last year's Oscar pack, but the film feels gutted, a 160-180 minute film filleted down to 120. Writer/director Steve Zaillian ("A Civil Action"), who adapted Robert Penn Warren's landmark novel about power and corruption, has on his hands a film that has no point and an Oscar winning star whose performance has been undercut by cutting.
Things get off to a good enough start, with Stark's creepy driver Sugar Boy (Jackie Earle Haley, "The Bad News Bears," "Breaking Away") rolling up to a moss covered mansion at midnight on one of Stark's character assassinating missions. Then, 'five years earlier,' we see Jack's early excitement at meeting this champion of the people, railing against a system whose corruption caused the death of two schoolchildren while selling cleaning products on the side. In a local barroom, Stark takes an orange soda with two straws because his wife 'doesn't favor' alcohol and is politically hustled by Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini, HBO's "The Sopranos"), who convinces him he has the stuff to run for governor. When Stark discovers he's being duped from Burden and press secretary (and mistress) Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson, "Good Night, and Good Luck"), he gets drunk, then comes out the next day swinging. Penn's state fair speech, which is followed by a well cut campaign montage, is the highlight of the film. Then everything goes wrong.
Suddenly we're back in the film's original time frame and Stark (the character is based on Governor Huey Long of Louisiana) is facing impeachment and bearing down on Burden to coerce his Godfather, Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins, "The World's Fastest Indian," who emerges with the most fully realized character), to recant his public denouncement of Stark's methods, but except for Willie's newly overabundant tastes for booze and floozies the film gives us no idea whatsoever what Stark has done wrong. "All the King's Men's" net also pulls in the character of Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet, "Finding Neverland"), daughter of the former Governor and Burden's lost love, who inexplicably becomes tangled up with Willie and whom Burden just as inexplicably never bedded. Perhaps Anne is trying to save her idealistic brother, Burden's old friend Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo, "Just Like Heaven"), a medical doctor fallen on hard times apparently because of that idealism. The film is such a jumble it only becomes apparent that Sadie's been Stark's mistress when she complains to Burden about his cheating with a seductive ice skater (1995 US Ladies' Figure Skating Champion Nicole Bobek), but at least she gets off the film's funniest line while doing so ('The world's full of sluts on skates.').
Sean Penn is expectedly dynamic as the politico who embraces 'the hicks' as one of their own, but even he cannot overcome a film that has him turn on a dime from duped small timer to Machiavellian manipulator. There's an ambiguous reference to a long ago wink which implies Willie knew what he was up to from the very beginning, but the ensuing events sure don't play out that way. And Law is a blank slate, a man aflame at the notion of the ethical grassroots candidate who five years later would bring down a man he loved and honored. Why? "All the King's Men" is all effect with no cause.
It's a good looking production steeped in place and period (Zaillian moved the book's 1930's setting into the 1950's to give it modern relevance) , but its final image hovering over the Louisiana State Seal is all Hollywood. James Horner's ("Titanic") score is overweighted in the story's early goings. It's a film of seriously missed opportunities.
Robin did not see this film.
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