All the Kings Men
You may remember Sean Penn defending Jude Law after Chris Rock took a crack at him at the Oscar ceremony back in 2005. They were filming All the King's Men together at the time, but the film has taken what seems like an age to get a release; whether that's because the studio wanted to position it for next year's Oscars, or whether they knew they had a problem here is a matter for speculation. Either way, Steve Zaillian's movie is this year's Cinderella Man, a 'prestige' picture that nobody wants to see. It placed seventh in the box office chart on the opening weekend, a long, long way behind Jackass 2.
The difference is, in the US anyway, Cinderella Man got mostly good reviews, and All the King's Men hasn't (metacritic.com came up with an average score of 37 out of 100). An adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel (previously filmed in 1950), it purports to tell the story of Willie Stark, a fiery populist politician from the sticks who pulls the rug out from under the party machine and becomes Governor of Louisiana. Once elected, his rhetoric about government corruption begins to ring hollow as he takes increasingly dictatorial traits, yet his radical agenda continues to terrify the Establishment.
Based on the larger than life Louisiana governor Huey Long, Stark is a compelling character. (Paul Newman played Huey's equally flamboyant brother Earl in the film Blaze). In fact Broderick Crawford won an Oscar for playing him in an earlier movie version of the book, directed by Robert Rossen in 1950. The real Huey Long invested heavily in education and social programs, and proposed an income cap so that wealth should be more evenly distributed. His nearest counterpart today would probably be Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Warren was more interested in the character as a proto-demagogue than a reformer - and given that President Roosevelt named Long one of the two most dangerous men in America, a potential homegrown Mussolini, that was understandable at the time.
Now, I would suggest, we might be more invested, not less, in a politician genuinely seeking to take on special interest groups, the oil companies and old money. But Zaillian's movie shoots itself in the foot by keeping Stark at arm's length throughout.
As in the novel, we're invited to see him through the eyes of a newspaper reporter turned spin doctor, Jack Burden (Jude Law). Oddly, though, Zaillian seems more interested in Burden than in his boss, which would make more sense if he wasn't such a passive figure.
The film is ham-strung by a structure that begins in the middle for no very good reason, then rewinds through a series of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Somewhere in the shuffle Stark transforms from idealist to megalomaniac, though it's almost entirely off-camera.
Zaillian's track record includes the screenplay for Schindler's List and writing and directing A Civil Action, the latter a courtroom drama that didn't shirk the nuts and bolts of the issue at its core. Here, even Jack's ethical dilemma is more tied to personal qualms and conflicted family loyalties than to principle or the issues at hand. (Pointlessly, Zaillian has updated the story from the 1930s to the 50s.)
It's a handsome film, I suppose, but the heavyweight actors all seem miscast: hard to believe anyone would vote for Penn's 'I'm a hick' pitch, for all the roiling arm-waving and bluster that accompanies it. Patricia Clarkson as the other woman? Anthony Hopkins as a southern Judge (Welsh accent intact of course)? Kate Winslet can do nothing with an underwritten role as the girl who comes between Jack and Willie. Mark Ruffalo and James Gandolfini are wasted. As for Law, he moons around unhappily in lackluster fashion.
You can see (and hear) why studio execs insisted re-editing and a new score; James Horner whips up crescendo on crescendo as he desperately tries to take up the slack. But I'm afraid all the king's men couldn't put this turgid misfire back together again.