In some respects, it's a tough task today to take on Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King's Men, a dense, lengthy work that drew inspiration from the once-familiar, Depression-era Louisiana politico Huey Long. Yet political corruption is a perennially meaty topic ... even if it's rooted in dusty history. A savvy filmmaker can help us bridge the past and the present.
Unfortunately, that's not the case with the new iteration from director and screenwriter Robert Zaillian. He streamlines the story, focusing on the career upswings and moral downfalls of two men whose lives intertwine: Willie Stark (Sean Penn), a good-ol'-boy political neophyte who wins the Louisiana governorship by promising reform, and Jack Burden (Jude Law), a dilettantish reporter who becomes Stark's fixer.
Zaillian suggests but never successfully parses the ambivalence that charismatic but deeply flawed men such as Stark engender ... how we salvage meaning from figures we know to be corrupt or ineffectual. Instead, Zaillian latches on to a few easy themes: We're all dirty, right from birth; our desires blind us and in time defeat us; power corrupts, and we're all complicit. Fearing for our competence, Zaillian puts the very words in the characters' mouths.
Zaillian can't seem to lay back and let the story just be ... from the film's opening, with its portentous music, through simplistic visual metaphors (even the proverbial black cat crossing the road) and repeated aphorisms ("time brings all things to light"). The film veers from sharp political commentary, or even a decent character study, into the turgid waters of Southern-fried melodrama.
Despite these flaws, King's Men is enjoyable to a point. Penn never truly inhabits Stark, but his fiery performance is fun to watch. A subplot digging into the past of an influential judge (Anthony Hopkins) provides some intrigue; the costumes and period sets are pleasant to look at.
Zaillian brings in a terrific slate of actors, including Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo, but for the most part they're either miscast, or their roles are woefully underdeveloped. Ultimately, we don't learn enough about all the king's men, including such key characters as Tiny, the lieutenant governor (portrayed by Tony Soprano, oops, I mean James Gandolfini, who can't shake the Jersey accent); Stark's aide-de-camp and mistress (Patricia Clarkson); and Stark's spectral driver, Sugar Boy (Jackie Earle Haley).
Despite its piecemeal nature, I liked the film's slow roll-out of plot. Then the bell rang for last call, and Zaillian crammed an hour's worth of action and backstory into the final 15 minutes. (Such sprawling and dense source material would better suit a top-notch television series.) The earlier missteps I might have overlooked, but the hurried conclusion just robbed the film of any lasting satisfaction.