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All the King's Men   C-

Columbia Pictures / Phoenix Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Steven Zaillian
Writer: Steven Zaillian (based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren)
Cast: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Jackie Earle Haley.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Oscar Hopeful That Somehow Went Horribly Wrong is a reliable staple of every September, and this year is no exception. After an ominous wait on the shelf, All the King's Men arrives in theaters to demonstrate yet again why noble subjects have nothing to do with artistic quality. Indeed, it's unlikely that Steven Zaillian's remake of the acclaimed Robert Penn Warren novel ever had any genuine aspirations behind it. It works only as a trophy grab, engineered to touch on the expected Academy tropes without investing any more energy than it has to. There's an important-sounding but morally timid premise, a cast full of respected Oscar darlings, and a lot of showy speeches that sound really good for those clips on the awards shows. But they serve no purpose beyond drawing attention to themselves. They feature no insight, no passion, and no creative energy other than a few "and the winner is" daydreams. In that sense, it's as empty and soulless as any Michael Bay movie; the niche is classier, that's all.

The mistakes start early, demonstrating a distressing lack of insight to the material that never improves as the film goes on. Warren's novel was based loosely on the life of Louisiana governor Huey Long, who rose to prominence on a populist platform before succumbing to corruption and an assassin's bullet. The movie presents the story as Shakespearean tragedy, with Long stand-in Willie Stark (Sean Penn) amassing great power at the cost of his own soul. We mostly see Stark through the eyes of his close advisor Jack Burden (Jude Law), who is so impressed by the man's passion and commitment that he willfully ignores the cesspool forming in his wake. Surrounding the pair is a bumper crop of lauded actors, including Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, and Anthony Hopkins (whose career now consists almost solely of bloated prestige projects). It's not hard to see why they were attracted to the film: swanky trappings, the chance to work with Penn, and a never-ending font of booming monologues that let them sink their teeth into their work. Why is it, then, that all of them feel as boring as last night's meatloaf, and that the themes of betrayal and compromise which they try to evoke come off as phony as a three-dollar bill?

Part of the reason might lie in the film's surface-only approach to its central figure. Stark begins All the King's Men as a cunning reformer, launched into prominence when a pork-barrel project he opposed ends in catastrophe. The party machine considers him a patsy, hoping he'll split the vote in order to help the real candidate win. But soon enough, Stark abandons his button-down speeches in favor of quasi-evangelical demagoguery, exhorting fire and brimstone from the campaign stump while the haggard faces of working men and women turn slowly in his direction. Penn channels his usual intensity masterfully, but very little of the actual character emerges beneath his thundering technique. When Stark wins the governorship in an upset, he goes immediately from man of the people to backslapping insider, exhibiting little development or progression in the interim. Was he always so Machiavellian, hiding his proclivities beneath noble intent? Or was he seduced by the trappings of office, corrupted only when power was firmly in his hands? All the King's Men doesn't seem to care. It asks us to take Stark's moral downfall solely on faith, never probing into the desires or motivation behind his acts.

The onerous of moral compromise actually falls to Burden -- initially more cynical than his boss -- who unwittingly sacrifices everything he holds dear for the sake of Stark's ambitions. Thanks to some convenient voice-over work (and a decent turn by Law), we get a little deeper inside his head, explaining how good men can be twisted to commit terrible deeds. But like too many other things in All the King's Men, nothing about it resonates with any truth. Burden's genteel southern background, his bond with a circuit-judge godfather (Hopkins), his lifelong friends whose aristocratic heritage becomes a cats' paw in Stark's schemes... Zaillian renders them all as a desiccated pall. Beneath them, the sense of greater things percolates, fueling the film's ambitions but receiving no real outlet with which to properly grab our attention.

But it's the essential gutlessness on display that inflicts the deepest wounds, for while All the King's Men has plenty of pretty speeches, none of them express anything of appreciable merit. Oscar loves faux importance, after all, and a simplistic message that no one really disagrees with ("power corrupts," for example) makes it all the easier to appear high-minded without risking any actual thought. Even such turgid creative goals need a filmmaker who cares about them, and All the King's Men shows no signs of such devotion. The work here is all so routine and prepackaged that no trace remains of the human insight it presumes to deliver. We learn little about ambition, political tragedy, or any of the deep-seated ideas that made Warren's book so notable. All we're left with is some bayou postcards and Penn screaming from the pulpit: sound and fury that, like too many other pieces of Southern Gothic, signify nothing.

Review published 09.22.2006.

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