"All the King's Men" loses the crown

Sept. 26, 2006, midnight | By Lingfeng Li | 14 years, 4 months ago

Political thriller has no thrills whatsoever

"Time brings all things to light," says idealistic crusader Willie Stark (Sean Penn) in one of the year's earliest Oscar-contenders, "All the King's Men." But even the Academy Award-winning Penn and a slew of other Oscar nominated costars can't bring this film to life.

It is hard to tell exactly where "All the King's Men" went wrong. For starters, it has a winning plot, derived from Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer-winning novel of the same title. Beginning with Willie's campaign for governor to correct the wrongs of the bureaucracy, the film chronicles Willie's struggles against wealthy legislators and his increasing desperation, which eventually costs him his morality. There is also a moving subplot centered on Willie's assistant Jack Burden (Jude Law), a journalist of aristocratic birth who has connections to the family of a former governor, including the governor's daughter, Anne (Kate Winslet), and close friend Adam (Mark Ruffalo). When Willie orders Jack to blackmail the influential Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), Jack is essentially forced to betray his upbringing. Thus, a saga of internal conflict, neglected lovers and most of all, idealism, materializes.

But it's not enough for this Oscar-wannabe to have a multifaceted and often convoluted plot; it must also enlist some of Hollywood's best. There are no less than five Academy Award winners and nominees in Penn, Hopkins, Winslet, Law and Patricia Clarkson, who plays Willie's secretary and mistress, not to mention three-time Emmy winner James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos"). Somehow though, the filmmakers manage to miscast almost every character. Most awkward is Penn, who waves his limbs about wildly, spouting lines like "power is in the hands of the powerless and those hands have handed it to me" in a braying, unconvincing Southern accent. There is no doubt that Penn is one of the finest actors of this generation, but even an actor of his stature and talent can't avoid a serious blunder here.

Director and screenwriter Steven Zaillian, the Oscar-winning writer of "Schindler's List," is no pushover either. But Zaillian makes a fatal mistake that no amount of A-list actors can conceal: he fails to explain the complicated plot of the novel to viewers, who are quickly overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and interrelatedness of characters and the extensive back story. For those who have never read the book, the film feels like a muddled collection of disjointed scenes that are neither connected nor coherent. The little hints Zaillian drop to help viewers decipher what is actually happening are far and between, leaving little for the powers of deduction to work with.

While Zaillian's inexperience as a director may be understandable, there is no excuse for his cumbersome script. Tedious and strained, the words lose all traction in the middle of the film, as lines bounce off the audience's ears without ever being processed. Rather than centering on idealism and morality, Zaillian chooses to graft scenes and lines from the novel, producing the film equivalent of a plastic surgery gone bad. The bleak Louisiana landscape, often shot in semi-noir style or shrouded in gloomy darkness, provides no assistance in overcoming the crushing monotony.

It's heartrending to brand "All the King's Men" as an utter failure, considering the extent of its promise. Zaillian is like a spoiled child who has everything, and then manages to make absolutely nothing out of it. "All the King's Men" should have been Oscar-fodder, an update of the acclaimed 1949 version of the novel. Instead, this adaptation may be the most disappointing film of the entire year as it fails to accomplish even the basics of what a movie should do – entertain.

"All the King's Men" (120 minutes, wide release) is rated PG-13 for an intense sequence of violence, sexual content and partial nudity.

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