1 star (out of four)
The actors are the least of the problems with the new version of "All the King's Men," now calcifying at a theater near you.
Watching scene after scene linger and expire in this haplessly faithful version of the 1946 Robert Penn Warren novel, it's impossible to tell what compelled adapter-director Steven Zaillian to address the material in the first place. It is a lovely and powerful American novel, of course, although Zaillian proves straight off in the first scene that mashing enormous slabs of the original prose into langorous voiceover narration tracks, spoken by a disaffected Jude Law, is no way to honor that prose.
The project initiator, political pundit and co-executive producer James Carville, has expressed the usual reasons for taking on any film about a homegrown American demagogue: Because powermongers are timeless threats, and we must guard, constantly, against populist wolves in sheep's clothing. Besides, the Huey P. Long-inspired Willie Stark, a man who would be king and a portrait in all-too-recognizable corruption, is a dynamic hypocrite, noble and ignoble motives mixed together. A big fat juicy hypocrite is a fine place to start when you're interested in exploring the American political character.
Sean Penn, with an apparently padded tummy, plays Stark, the small-town Louisiana lawyer turned governor and self-appointed king. Law plays the metaphorically named conscience of the story, Jack Burden, a newspaperman turned king's right-hand man. Was Penn a wrong-headed choice for Stark? Already he has been widely characterized as such, but I don't think so. He's a wily and combustible actor, enough so to make his own kind of sense in the role, at least in radically different cinematic circumstances.
But Penn, like practically everyone else on screen, flails around in "All the King's Men" to no avail. His flailing is literal, as he pinwheels his arms around during flatly filmed speech after firebrand speech, like a puppet on a string. It's Law, though, who comes off as a distrustworthy rent-boy instead of a conflicted and charismatic observer. He's not Jack Burden, he's Johnny Poseur.
The previous film version of the novel won the 1949 Academy Award for best picture. Robert Rossen, the director-adapter of that project, boiled the narrative down to its bones and kept it moving. Rossen's film holds up mainly for the surprising delicacy and shading brought to the table by Broderick Crawford (as Stark) and the memorable, self-loathing cynicism of Mercedes McCambridge (as Sadie Burke, his paramour and handler). Patricia Clarkson takes on the Sadie Burke role here, and it's a measure of the remake's ineffectuality that the actress--a good one--barely registers.
In the opening seconds you know all too well how this thing will proceed. We see Law, lying on his bed staring at the ceiling while he drones on in voiceover about life's cruel lessons, as the rain hits the windowpane just so. James Horner's godawful musical score sounds an actual death knell in its first bars. Great. Thanks for the warning.
Zaillian's screenplay relocates the action from the Depression era to the early 1950s and the predawn of the civil rights movement. This is neither here nor there. Fatally, however, the script preoccupies itself with Burden's blackmail mission involving Stark's political enemy and Burden's adoptive father, Judge Irwin, played by Anthony Hopkins with a dialect to be named later. The blackmail particulars never were the most interesting thing about the novel. Here, they've been treated as the only interesting thing about it--and Zaillian, more of a screenwriter than he is a director, lets the exposition choke the story.
Another bizarre misstep relates to a question of tone. When Stark hits the stump and starts discovering his own rhetorical voice, it's bad enough Zaillian films each speech indistinctly. (The speeches should've been treated the way Scorsese filmed the fights in "Raging Bull," each one strikingly different than the others.) Worse, Penn's Stark rarely comes off as a complicated mixture of man of the people and exploiter, both. The way composer Horner scores the rise-of-Willie montage, it's as if the noblest creature on Earth were being born. The new "All the King's Men" presents a far softer and duller version of Stark and his cronies than the old one did.
In an ensemble war between the Brits (Law, Hopkins and Kate Winslet) and the Americans (Penn, James "How's My Looze-ee-ana Dialect?" Gandolfini and Clarkson, among others) it's a draw. Kathy Baker, as Burden's elegantly sodden mother, shows the only sign of interpretive life in this stiff-jointed enterprise. She has about five minutes on screen; she's lucky that way.
The central figure in "All the King's Men" always was deceptive. Stark remains a force of nature and an iconic figurehead more than he is a thrillingly complex literary creation. (Burden and his inquisitions into the past rule the novel.) A director must find a way to bring the story's swamp of moral confusion to teeming life. The way Zaillian handles that story, the one in which Penn Warren concludes with a grand acknowledgment of "the awful responsibility of Time," it's not so much timeless as motionless.
'All the King's Men'
Directed by Steven Zaillian; screenplay by Zaillian, based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren; cinematography by Pawel Edelman; edited by Wayne Wahrman; production design by Patrizia Von Brandenstein; music by James Horner; produced by Mike Madevoy, Arnold W. Messer, Ken Lemberger and Zaillian. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:08. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for an intense sequence of violence, sexual content and partial nudity).
Willie Stark - Sean Penn
Jack Burden - Jude Law
Anne Stanton - Kate Winslet
Tiny Duffy - James Gandolfini
Adam Stanton - Mark Ruffalo
Sadie Burke - Patricia Clarkson
Judge Irwin - Anthony Hopkins