All the King’s Men
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir-scr Steven Zaillian
with Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Kathy Baker, Jackie Earle Haley, Talia Balsam, Travis Champagne, Paul Ben-Victor
release US 22.Sep.06,
UK 27.Oct.06
06/US Columbia 2h08

Heading for a fall: Penn (above); Law, Winslet and Ruffalo (below)

clarkson gandolfini ruffalo


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All the King's Men Based on Robert Penn Warren's novel (with no mention of the multiple Oscar-winning 1949 film in the credits or production notes), this is a fictionalised take on controversial Louisiana Governor Huey Long. It's a slickly produced film that drowns in convoluted plotting and clumsy characterisations.

Willie Stark (Penn) runs for governor on a platform to "nail" the politicians who are strangling the public through special interest connections. He hires journalist Jack Burden (Law) as his right-hand man, and we see the story through his eyes as Stark revels in the power--consuming everyone around him, from his lovelorn press officer (Clarkson) to Jack's old flame (Winslet) and her conscientious brother (Ruffalo). Eventually, Stark's scandals threaten to bring down everyone around him.

This is a meaty, hugely relevant story that's packed with colourful characters. But Zaillian muddles it by overlaying a film noir sensibility that's forced and artificial. He darts between the plot threads without explaining anything fully, and never allows the characters to spring properly to life. Each one feels pivotal to the plot, but not remotely interesting or sympathetic. And their incessant dialog is far too dense for us to catch everything hidden within it. The voices blur into a talky haze of varying accents.

The cast is strong, although the connections between them are limited to undefined flashbacks and vague references. Penn sparkles as a vibrant man whose political speeches blaze with evangelical zeal; we understand why the public loves him. But he's basically a side character, as the film centres on Jack, who narrates Sunset Blvd-style. While Law plays the part well, he's never magnetic enough to take us with him. Winslet and Ruffalo are terrific in strangely marginalised roles, while Clarkson, Gandolfini and Hopkins at least get a few weighty moments before being sidelined.

The problem is that neither Zaillian's writing nor directing can contain the story. In the end we wonder what the point of the film really is. Stark is clearly a corrupt politician, but Zaillian seems to see him as an earthy hero unfairly besieged by his opponents. The film is over-designed, over-complicated and over-earnest. And despite all the talent involved, it's just not very good.

cert 12 themes, violence, some language 12.Sep.06

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© 2006 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall