Featured Review: All the King's Men 


An adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the solid 1949 movie version of All the King’s Men has found its standing diminished over the passage of time; even with a handful of Oscars to its name (including Best Picture), it’s rarely brought up when discussing the notable films of 50-odd years ago. Still, it doubtless will beat the life expectancy of the new screen take on All the King’s Men, as it’s hard to imagine anyone discussing this bomb 50  days from now. Warren’s book centered on boisterous, larger-than-life governor Willie Stark, but really it was just a thinly disguised look at the career of Louisiana politician Huey Long. If high school memory serves me, the novel spent more time on Willie’s right-hand man, former newspaper reporter Jack Burden, yet still presented Long as such a dynamic figure that the roles were essentially balanced. In crafting his 1949 feature, writer-director Robert Rossen wisely made Willie Stark the unequivocal central character, with Burden relegated to the sidekick part of conflicted narrator. The earlier film is by no means perfect, yet Rossen did a masterful job with the exposition. Steven Zaillian’s new film is an unmitigated disaster, choked by miscast actors, suffocated by illogical editing and drowned by a choppy script that offers no real sense of period (oddly, the time frame has been shifted from the 1930s to the 1950s) and no clear delineation of its central themes. Let’s start with the grotesque miscasting of Sean Penn as Willie Stark. Broderick Crawford earned the Best Actor Oscar for his turn as Willie, and while that might have been an overly generous gesture on the part of the Academy, there’s no denying that Crawford’s bluster and burly frame were perfect for the role of a self-proclaimed “hick” whose folksy charms endeared him to his state’s rural population. West Coast kid Penn, on the other hand, is about as folksy as a Manhattan Starbucks, and never mind that he looks nothing like Stark model Huey Long. This is one of Penn’s worst performances, second only to his shameless “Look, Ma, I’m retarded!” showboating in I Am Sam; even his pompadour hair is miscast. While Brits are renowned for their ability to mimic Southern accents (for starters, think Vivien Leigh as either Scarlett or Blanche), the ones employed here -- excellent actors, all -- barely even make an effort to merge into the setting. Jude Law (as Burden) and Anthony Hopkins seem bored; Kate Winslet merely seems lost.


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