A film review by Craig J. Koban
ALL THE KING'S MEN
2006, R, 120 mins.
Willie Stark: Sean Penn / Jack Burden: Jude Law / Anne Stanton: Kate Winslet / Sadie Burke: Patricia Clarkson / Tiny Duffy: James Gandolfini / Adam Stanton: Mark Ruffalo / Judge Montague Irwin: Anthony Hopkins / Mrs. Burden: Kathy Baker
Written and directed by Steven Zaillian / Based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren
ALL THE KING’S MEN could have been more aptly called MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Alas, that title was already taken. The cinematic sins that this film perpetrates are among the most detested. It does nothing to invest me in its underlying story and themes and seems to drown in its own wicked excesses of self-importance and grandiose posturing. This is a film that wants to have the moniker of sure-fire “Oscar contender” written all over it. Instead, it seems more poised for honorable mention at next spring’s Razzies.
Perhaps even more startling is that this excessive and wasteful mess involves people of enormous and limitless talent, not to mention that it contains a performance by Sean Penn – one of our truly great actors – that can’t decide if it wants to invite our legitimate awe or our laughable contempt. ALL THE KING’S MEN is another breed of bad film altogether – it sets its aesthetically sights so high and instead sees itself plummet into a bottomless abyss.
This film is the ultimate cure for insomniacs. I rarely – if ever – want to invite slumber at the cinemas, but ALL THE KING’S MEN is such a lumbering, ponderous, lethargically paced biopic that I must have set a personal record for checking my watch during the screening. The film is a fairly judicious and palpable two hours. It felt like four. It has no forward momentum, just a lot of false starts and unsatisfying conclusions. It has shoddy and ill-timed narrative flash-forwards and flash backs, all which seem so cobbled and hastily thrown together that one almost needs some sort of descriptive video service to make some semblance of the overall story. Characters are introduced, then abruptly forgotten, then reintroduced when the screenplay feels it conveniently appropriate. And – to make matters ever worse – the film has no apparent desire to infuse any drama in its proceedings, emotional resonation with the viewers, or any political savvy into the film. The main character preaches with a fire and brimstone vitality, but the film is all bark and no bite. For a political thriller, ALL THE KING’S MEN has its fires put out within its first few minutes.
I dunno. Am I being too harsh on the film? Perhaps, but then again, maybe not when you take in consideration the players involved and the subject matter. Perhaps one of the first warning signs was the film’s troubling production and its failure to secure a wide release (it was to be released during Christmas of 2005 and then saw its release put off several times until it saw the light of day this fall). Perhaps more unsettling is the fact that the film is the second telling of a story that had already been told to great effect in the Oscar winning 1949 film of the same name, which was based on Pulitzer Prize winning book by Robert Penn Warren. However, the real nail in the coffin for the film is that the final product has been given to us by the usually gifted and dependable Steven Zaillian.
Zaillian is a pedigree of filmmaker and writing talent that has deservedly seen his fair share of praise. He was, after all, the Oscar winning screenwriter for SCHINDLER’S LIST, not to mention the co-writer of one of the best films of 2002 in Martin Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK. He also wrote and directed one of the more entertaining of all of John Grisham’s big screen appropriations in 1998’s A CIVIL ACTION. I guess that when they say that the taller they are, the harder they fall, no more is this true than with Zaillian and his work here with adapting ALL THE KING’S MEN for its second silver screen treatment.
This is an atypically awful turn for the writer/director as the film takes too many wrong turns and never finds an adequate way of finding its way back. ALL THE KING’S MEN is like one of those sickly animals that you want to put to sleep to end their suffering. As I was watching the film all I was thinking about was the fact that it’s screenplay needed to be tossed in order to get something more manageable and agreeable. Instead, we get something barely approximating a first draft that is a disagreeable bore. On some levels, the story ALL THE KING’S MEN wants to tell seems good on paper, but does it really have anything noteworthy or valuable to say? Oh, it does, and that’s the notion that politicians are greedy, manipulative, and self-congratulatory.
What could have made the film powerful and authoritative are not so much what it had to say (which is nothing new), but the manner with which it could have said it. That’s one of the many real problems that plague the film. It simply does not really have a voice and has nothing inherently interesting to say. Even worse, it generates no urgency or interest in its characters. A cast of this calibre should have been enough to ensure the film’s ability to involve an audience. Yet, when one has the likes of Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, and Mark Ruffalo, the fact that it makes ALL THE KING’S MEN a yawn filled bore all the more stupefying.
The film follows “the governor of the people” Willie Stark (inspired by real-life Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long; played by Penn), who wins the governorship of Louisiana in the early 50’s with a landslide victory. His party platform easily secured the “hick/redneck” vote – anti-big business and pro-education and health. On some levels, he is presented as an idealist who understands the needs of the common, beleaguered folk. As the film introduces us to Stark he is a simple man with limited powers that is trying to keep a schoolhouse construction contract in good hands. When that battle is lost he rolls up his sleeves and goes on the political offensive. He becomes the people’s candidate for fighting the system. He hits some roadblocks early on in the form of Tiny Duffy (the underused James Gandolfini) who battles Stark on the political front. Within no time, he starts addressing small, unassuming crowds and his take-no-prisoners mentality and evangelical posturing starts to attract attention.
Before the point in the film where Stark starts sermonizing the crowds, Penn is in mostly subdued form. However, when he starts his quest for the governorship, he rallies up a performance that becomes so wickedly over-the-top, flamboyant, and histrionic that you’d swear that his daily prep was to binge of a dozen espressos chased with a six pack of beer after smoking two packs of cigarettes. His words and speeches are so hard-nosed, thunderous, and rage filled that it would not be silly to assume that lightning would come down from the sky and decimate anyone that does not share his views.
Penn has a lot of speeches like this in the film that become increasingly so megalomaniacal and overwrought in their pretentiousness that you start to think that the only cure for his eccentric performance excesses would be Ritalin. It’s one thing to tackle a larger-than-life figure with bravado, but you sure don’t have to super size your performance to near teeth grating levels. Watching Penn is both a marvel of seeing an actor transform into a character and then seeing his eccentricities get the better of him. Penn is one of our most dependable performers, but he’s just not on solid ground here. If anything, Penn's wildly all-over-the-map performance makes the film somewhat tolerable on a campy entertainment level.
Along for the political ride are Stark's right hand man, Jack Burden (Jude Law) a former reporter who comes from a wealthy upbringing and becomes so close to the governor that he begins to become jaded when he sees him getting progressively more corrupt. Stark’s most notorious political enemy is Judge Irwin (Hopkins), who also is Jack’s godfather and does everything he can to not cave in to Stark’s threats. There are other players that fit into the story, albeit in a highly awkward and convoluted fashion, and they are Jack’s old girlfriend, Anne (Kate Winslet) and her brother, Adam (Mark Ruffalo, who looks utterly confused by this whole film, judging by his performance), who all formed a friendship trio in the past and now see their mutual love become tarnished by Stark’s unsavory corruption. All of this laboriously culminates in a final scene that – by the time the credits rolled by – felt like more of a relief than anything else.
So much of ALL THE KING’S MEN is so mishandled. Firstly, the arc of the Stark role is so misshaped and rudimentary. Zaillian presents this man as a wide-eyed opportunist turned oppressive and malevolent politician too bloody fast to be believed, not to mention that the work of Penn makes the persona more of a grotesque and silly caricature than a real slimy presence that reeks of menace. The script of the film could have also used more polish. The narrative flow is an ungodly disaster from start to finish. Zaillian makes the wretched choice of utilizing a lot of needless subplots that punctuate that main narrative at the wrong times. Often, the film goes forward in time and then back in time and then forward again, often without much forethought, to the point where it becomes difficult to invest in any one character or their individual stories. The roles of Adam and Anne are so clumsy in their execution and implementation that you can almost sense the puzzlement on Winslet’s and Rufallo’s faces as they perform in their respective scenes. Not only that, but Jude Law is so bland and lifeless as his intrepid journalist that it kind of makes you wonder if any other southern actors were available for the part. And Anthony Hopkins gives a a phoned in performance that feels like a British actor not even attempting a southern accent.
At least Zaillian’s film looks good. He generates enough legitimate intrigue in the darker period details of the film’s settings. The cinematography and production design are consummate and slick. Yet, why couldn’t the story and performances gel as well as a cohesive whole? The story is confusing, it takes way too many unnecessary and ill-time detours, and the lackluster performances don’t do much in the away of ambiance. It’s hard to even label ALL THE KING'S MEN as a honorable failure. The film is a dramatic dead zone without any intrigue. Sure, seeing Penn flail his arms like he was an orchestral conductor while lashing out with an acidic, rabble-rousing pontiff is fun for a little while, but it just grows more tedious with time. The film grows meandering to the point of exhaustion where its own tediousness and overstuffed melodrama are its ultimate undoing. Sigh.
Considering the talent of Steven Zaillian at the director’s chair and at the writer’s desk, along with a who’s who of Oscar nominated and winning actors, this second adaptation of ALL THE KING’S MEN unfortunately is one of the most ungainly and bloated political thrillers of the year. As a high minded and cautionary tale of political corruption during delicate times, the film is too saturated in its own sense of self-importance to take a legitimate stance on anything, nor is it even a serviceably entertaining and watchable potboiler of one politician’s modest rise from obscurity to corrupt governor. With miscast roles, a performance by Sean Penn in the lead part that reeks of an addiction to amphetamines, and a narrative whose structure lacks coherence and cohesiveness, ALL THE KING'S MEN’S is disastrously hollow. Simply put, this film is one dreary and tiresome dud. Considering the people involved, it makes of its flaws all the more inexcusable.