A review of “All the King's Men” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: * 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for violence and partial nudity

Run Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes

 

 

It’s hard to fathom how a star-studded project with an A-list pedigree can completely lose its way.

Director Steve Zaillian – veteran of such respected projects as “Schindler’s List” (screenplay) and “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (screenplay and direction) – makes a cinematic muddle of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, not to mention the memory of the 1949 Oscar classic, only sporadically giving life to this scandalous tale of idealism, corruption and betrayal.

Sean Penn is surprisingly monotonous as low-rent traveling salesman Willie Stark, hand-picked by shady operator Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) to enter the Louisiana governor’s race as a power-to-the-little-people dark horse. Stark’s populist platform is pro-hicks; taking a sympathetic stand for the disenfranchised have-nots.

Duffy’s agenda is opaque at best – putting Stark on a soapbox in order to garner votes for the wealthy incumbent. Stark finally realizes he’s a sacrificial sap, and – in the film’s only truly powerful scene – delivers an impassioned oration that gives goosebumps.

Once elected Stark all too swiftly transforms from teetotaling family man into a madly gesticulating demagogue intent on destroying the state of Louisiana in the name of the little people. More speeches ensue, flailing arms and empty sentiments laying waste to the shaky narrative.

Perhaps if the focus were left shining on the cunning Stark there would be sparks, at the very least a spectacularly unseemly rise-and-fall that would spawn interest. Instead the perplexing proceedings are narrated in devil-may-care voice-over by disillusioned newspaperman Jack Burden (Jude Law), who joins Stark’s scheming coterie and comes face-to-face with his own sordid past.

Fellow thesps Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins and Patricia Clarkson are wasted in underwritten roles that revolve around the oozy evil of Stark’s political cosmos. Can’t deny the evident talent but there’s only so much one can do with poorly written material.

Editing is scrappy and scripting is cheesy – of the “tangled bedclothes and unspoken loathing” variety. Sweeping score is too loud, too broad and generally in the way, abetting an uneasy aura of faux grandeur.

Sloppy where it should be slick; what a letdown.