When a highly anticipated film is shelved for nearly a year so that, as the studio explains, its director needn’t be rushed to put it into final shape, one usually begins to sniff a stinker in the making. But with “All the King’s Men,” the remake of Robert Rossen’s Oscar-winning 1949 film based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, people were inclined to reserve judgment, simply because the filmmaker in question was Steven Zaillian, who’d been responsible for the screenplay of “Schindler’s List” and done such a remarkable job with unlikely material in 1993 with “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” And that despite the fact that as Willie Stark, the central figure in the thinly-disguised portrait of the Louisiana Kingfish Huey Long, Zaillian had cast Sean Penn–hardly the first person one would have considered to take on a role that Broderick Crawford had played, and won the Oscar for, in Rossen’s version. Still, Penn is so good an actor that maybe he could pull it off, right?
Well, no he couldn’t. And as it turns out, neither could Zaillian. The new “All the King’s Men” is pretty much a mess, misconceived in the most fundamental ways and badly cast. The writer-director might have been allotted nine more months to get what he’d shot into some manageable form, but the time does not appear to have been well spent. The original footage seems to have been such a cinematic Humpty Dumpty, all fractured and diffuse, that no amount of editorial sleight of hand could put it together successfully.
The general thrust of the narrative is clear enough. Stark is a backwoods county treasurer who tries to fight the graft-taking local politicos and is vindicated when several children are killed in the collapse of a poorly-built schoolhouse. Tapped by the machine behind an urban gubernatorial candidate to enter the race in order to split the “cracker” vote, Stark is wised up to the fact that he’s being used by ostensibly cynical newsman Jack Burden (Jude Law), who narrates the story; and by shunning his handlers’ instructions and being himself, Stark wins and becomes master of the state, taking on the powerful oil companies and political establishment to undertake public works projects the poor need–as does he, to maintain his popularity. Threatened with impeachment, he orders Jack, whom he’s hired as an aide, to find some dirt on Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), who virtually raised Burden after he was abandoned by his father–a man of impeccable reputation whose support for impeachment will likely swing the vote against Stark. Jack’s investigation not only leads to a sad revelation–and a moral dilemma for Burden whether or not to use what he’s uncovered–but brings him back into contact with his two childhood friends (and members of a much-respected family), Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), his first love, and her brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a dissolute doctor for whom Stark has some political plans. The machinations, of course, lead to a series of tragic outcomes, including–as in the case of Long–a bloody demise.
If the outline of the story is clear, the actual structure Zaillian has chosen to tell it is not. He starts at mid-point, then stumbles back to the beginning and proceeds from there, but not without resorting periodically to flashbacks to fill in prodigious blanks. He dismisses what would seem important elements of the tale–like the roles of Willie’s wife (Talia Balsam) and son (Travis M. Champagne)–with the briefest of mentions, in favor of a murky relationship between the governor and another of his assistants, Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson), who proves as jealous as one might have expected Stark’s wife to be. He fails to explain how Judge Irwin’s opinion on impeachment would sway the matter one way or the other, or how the appointment of Adam as the head of the governor’s new hospital would make much of a difference, either. He makes the part played by Anne in all the machinations so murky that even when it’s revealed, you’ll have trouble catching the import; and the same is true of another big twist, when the true relationship between Irwin and Burden is disclosed but not explained. And by presenting Stark’s public rants against his legislative opponents as a series of dark, shadowy inserts surrealistically punctuating the action, he creates more confusion than enlightenment.
Mention of those gubernatorial speeches brings Penn’s performance to the forefront. The actor certainly works hard, using an accent sometimes so thick as to resist understanding, rolling about in a padded suit to give him extra heft, and flailing his arms about in wild gesticulations as he orates in a way reminiscent of the historical Long. But the result never seems much more than a stunt. Penn can’t overcome the fact that he’s just wrong for the role–something that’s accentuated when there’s an actor on the screen who would have been a logical choice for the part–James Gandolfini, who’s instead been cast as Tiny Duffy, the hack politico whom Stark selects as his lieutenant governor. You find yourself watching Penn contort himself to little effect while often standing beside him is a man who would have fit comfortably into Stark’s suit. It’s a sad state of affairs.
The same could be said of the supporting cast, who largely acquit themselves poorly. Law, Winslet, Clarkson and Ruffalo all seem either bored or bewildered, and while Hopkins brings his customary authority to Judge Irwin, he seems to be coasting–a fact accentuated by his failure even to attempt to disguise his British accent.
But Zaillian’s most fundamental error may have been to move the story from its original setting in the 1930s to the 1950s. Simply put, Stark’s career, like Long’s, reeks of the Depression, and makes little sense when transferred to the post-war Eisenhower era. Perhaps the director simply liked the challenge of creating a fifties look (though the generally gloomy cinematography of Pawel Edelman often conceals what would seem the yeoman efforts of production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein, art director Gary N. Naugh and costumer Marit Allen in that regard); but if that’s what he wanted to do, he would have been wiser to choose a different tale to tell.
Fortunately, Rossen’s “All the King’s Men” is still available for anyone interested in seeing Robert Penn Warren’s masterpiece successfully adapted to the screen. And if you’d like to see the real thing, check out Ken Burns’s great 1985 documentary, “Huey Long.”