By Pete Vonder Haar | September 25, 2006

Adapted from the book by Robert Penn Warren, itself loosely based on the life of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, “All the King’s Men” is obviously striving for greatness. The movie is chock full of Academy Award-caliber talent (Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, and Kate Winslet, to name but three) and features a (some would argue) timely message about the corruption inherent in the political process and the ultimate futility of idealism.

Sound fun? Didn’t think so. “All the King’s Men” is ambitious, but collapses under the weight of its own aspirations. Penn plays Willie Stark, who begins the film as a well-meaning rural politician who campaigns for governor on a “sticking it to The Man” platform that unites both poor whites and disenfranchised blacks to his cause. Once installed, Stark is forced to deal with the entrenched might of the oil and utilities industries as well as that of the current ruling class, who resent Stark’s audacious plans to improve the lot of Louisiana’s poor.

Our guide through Stark’s career trajectory is Jack Burden (Jude Law, though I was obviously hoping for Kurt Russell), who starts out covering Stark’s gubernatorial campaign for a New Orleans newspaper. Burden’s favorable articles get him in hot water with his anti-Stark bosses, which works out for the best when Stark asks him to join his administration as a makeshift liaison to the power elite (Burden himself is of aristocratic lineage), the better to help push the Governor’s agenda. However, his past eventually catches up with his present when Stark manages to involve Burden’s godfather (Hopkins), boyhood chum (Mark Ruffalo) and childhood sweetheart (Winslet) in his schemes. At the end of it all, Burden comes to realize (surprise) that power corrupts, and that the road to hell is paved with…something or other.

Writer/director Steve Zaillian wants “All the King’s Men” to serve two purposes. First, it is to be a compelling drama about Stark’s rise to power, his (and Burden’s) ensuing loss of innocence, and the amorphous nature of betrayal. At the same time, the modern-day application of Stark exhorting the downtrodden to “nail ’em up” couldn’t be more blatant (the entire montage is repeated at film’s end, just in case we didn’t get it the first time). Zaillian – and Penn, no doubt – are hoping “All the King’s Men” will strike a chord with disaffected Americans as we head into mid-term elections. How effective this strategy will be depends on your own political bent, but Democrats and Republicans alike will likely come together in this case to agree that the film is too slowly paced and meandering to be galvanizing.

The film looks authentic, sure. Zaillian captures Louisiana in all its torpid glory, and – unlike the original 1948 version – there are actually some black people on display. James Horner’s overbearing score obliterates any attempts at subtlety, however. The cast is also obviously trying really hard, but therein lies the problem: everyone tries too hard (okay, maybe not Hopkins, but he’s playing an ailing retired guy). Penn’s Willie Stark, with his electric fence haircut and fits of uncontrollable gesticulation, might as well be Jerry Lee Lewis’ uncle. Law is far too pretty to play a supposedly jaded alcoholic (maybe he and Penn should’ve switched parts), Gandolfini will be doomed to playing heavies and fixers until the end of time, and Ruffalo brings little besides his usual look of irritated consternation. Only Winslet is convincing in her moral ambiguousness, and Jackie Earl Haley – of all people – brings a fine sense of menace to the role of Stark’s driver/bodyguard.

“All the King’s Men” comes up short in many ways, but none more so than its failure to fulfill Penn’s and Zaillian’s desire to provide the catalyst for political sea change. And not because the message is necessarily inaccurate, but because is lackluster enough that few people are going to be motivated to seek it out.

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