Steven Zaillian, the writer-director of All The King's Men, says that his film is about ends and means, and "whether good made from bad is still good". This may not be quite so clear to his audience. Based, like the Robert Rossen film of 1949, on Robert Penn Warren's novel about the rise and fall of a corrupt Louisiana governor, the film is so murky and vague you'd be hard pressed to say what it's about. Political corruption seems to be its main issue, though as to the details of who does what to whom, and why, your guess is as good as mine.
For about 20 minutes of its slow opening section, I couldn't tell if my hearing was at fault or whether the Louisiana accents the cast have adopted were actually indecipherable. The broadest of them all belongs to Sean Penn as Willie Stark, a good ol' Southern boy who's running for governor in the early 1950s.
When we first meet him, he's a door-to-door salesman with little instinct for public oratory; the country folk he addresses look pretty underwhelmed. Then something is unlocked in him, and he becomes a whirling dervish of the stump: "You're a hick," he declaims, "and no one ever helped a hick but a hick himself." Swaggering about in a double-breasted suit, Stark takes the people, and then the governorship, by storm.
Penn matches his rollercoastering Southern vowels to a body language that's all arms and elbows. I can't read semaphore, but I have a small intuition that two messages are being signalled: one, I am larger than life; and two, this ought to get me an Oscar.
Stark's rise to prominence is seen through the eyes of Jack Burden (Jude Law), a newspaper journalist from a well-to-do Southern background. Gradually, as he gets to know Willie, Burden abandons reporting to become his friend's chief fixer, apparently as mesmerised as the Lousiana working men by his brash demagoguery and bullying charisma.
Stark talks about taxing the oil companies and promises to build roads, bridges and schools - all the things his impoverished "hick" constituency needs. Yet the film never gets to the heart of what he actually does. It keeps telling us he's an idealist without showing us how. Instead, the dramatic thrust of the story concerns his efforts to escape a corruption charge, leaving us to take an awful lot for granted. What's he been up to all this time?
One answer might be: hiring other people to do his dirty work. James Gandolfini and Patricia Clarkson play two of his backroom cohorts, slyly jockeying for power, while his bodyguard is played by Jackie Earle Haley, the only actor with a face thinner than Lee Van Cleef's.
Zaillian and his production team treat Louisiana like a great Gothic hall of shadows, a place of old mansions, smoky clubs and rain-slicked streets: a place where secrets get buried. The second half of the movie deals with the unearthing of those secrets, and is clearly meant to deliver a revelatory shock. I'm afraid it doesn't happen that way, partly because they're too sketchily handled, and partly because they all concern, by hugely implausible coincidence, the past life of Jack Burden (he turns out to earn his name).
The first of them relates to a senior judge (Anthony Hopkins), who was once a father figure to young Jack. The second is to do with a Southern belle named Anne (Kate Winslet), who was Jack's lost love; and the third with Anne's sister and Jack's best friend, Adam (Mark Ruffalo), who's supposed to be a brilliant doctor and man of integrity but just hangs out in an old apartment tinkling on a piano.
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The plot begins to feel at once overloaded and undernourished: we keep getting hints of a complicated intrigue without the thing itself. The spinning newspaper montage is a terrible cliché, but for once it might have been a useful way to orientate us, to lend a sense of momentum to the political skulduggery. Zaillian's screenplay never rouses itself to any meaningful authority, preferring to let James Horner's portentous score crank up the atmosphere of foreboding.
All The King's Men might have got away with it if it had conjured a dynamic pairing in Penn and Law. It emphatically does not. Law is a ravishingly handsome screen presence - you can't help staring - but it has become hard to take his acting seriously; or rather, it is only his acting you ever notice. He no longer disappears into a role (the last time he did was in The Talented Mr Ripley); he merely decorates it. As Jack Burden, he convinces neither as a journalist nor as a man who might throw in his lot with a hammy old rabble-rouser like Willie Stark. Penn himself doesn't make it easy to believe he'd pick this cipher to be his confidant - the relationship hints at the master-servant axis of Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success, which really does stand up as an anatomy of power and its corruptions.
It is hard to think of a recent movie in which a heavyweight cast punches so feebly. At times it feels like these star performers were signed up before their roles had been allotted. Certainly none of them sounds at home with the Southern accent (Hopkins, as far as I could tell, doesn't even bother trying). Only Penn seems to have any relish for what he's about, but his windmilling arms and rhetorical bluster do not make him a delight to watch. In that respect alone, you could say he's a politician to the life.
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