Overstuffed and fatally miscast, “All the King’s Men” never comes to life. Despite location shooting and obvious sincerity, this second screen version of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 novel about a corrupt populist Southern governor not unlike Louisiana’s Huey P. Long doesn’t seem authentic for a moment, due to a glittering array of actors who look and sound like they’ve come from different ends of the English-speaking world — which, in fact, they have. Absent any point of engagement to become involved in the characters, the film feels stillborn and is unlikely to stir public excitement, even in an election year.
Willie Stark (like Long) came as close to demonstrating the possibilities of a uniquely American fascism as any politician. The source of his power was Southern hicks, the poor, the disenfranchised, the resentful have-nothings on whose behalf Stark promised, if elected, to stick a pole through the rich ol’ boys and cook ’em over an open pit.
Given some of their past projects and involvements, there’s no doubt it’s this almost always pertinent political component that inspired project originator James Carville, producer Mike Medavoy and writer-director Steve Zaillian to want to remake a film that won the Oscar for best picture; indeed, it’s the only reason there could be to get excited about such a venture.
All the greater the disappointment, then, that this long-delayed production bears scarcely a pulse, much less the passion of its characters and filmmakers behind it. Even the period seems uncertain: The story unquestionably belongs to the Depression era, when Long himself reigned. But the cars and a few other details look somewhat more recent, and one is astonished to learn at the end that the story has run all the way up to 1954. No doubt the rationale was to make the story seem less distant, and thus somehow more relevant, but the move does nothing but underline the film’s imprecision and incredibility.
Stark, played with untiring ferociousness and ceaseless arm-waving and gesticulating by Sean Penn, is the poor farm boy and political small-timer paged by monied operator Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) to run for governor in a covert attempt to split the redneck vote and thus hand the election to the fat-cat incumbent. When Willie discovers this, his rage incites him to discover his true voice as an orator, publicly attacking Duffy along with all the other back-scratching Baton Rouge bigwigs.
The from-one-hick-to-another approach works wonders, and it’s here, where Willie establishes his rapport with the people, that the film should soar. But we never see Willie mixing it up with the hoi polloi in any meaningful way, as Zaillian simply offers standard-issue reaction shots of unknown extras giving Willie the thumbs-up without, frankly, the kind of hee-hawing and “You tell ’em, Willie!” responses you’d expect to see.
Even before it gets this far, however, the film bogs down in the hushed, lugubrious narration of disillusioned newspaperman Jack Burden, who has gone on to work for Willie and is clearly fated to be buried along with his bottle of booze.
Three of the seven leading roles are played by British actors; of them, Law is the only one to even attempt a Southern accent (strange, in that the Brits, beginning with Vivien Leigh, used to be so good at it). But he then chooses to speak as quietly as possible, in the likely hope that the inadequacies of his accent will be all but indecipherable.
As to the others, Kate Winslet, as the unconsummated love of Jack’s youth, speaks plain old American, while Anthony Hopkins, playing a powerful judge in what could be called the Burl Ives or Charles Durning role, sounds as though he’s from Louisiana by way of Wales and London.
To fit with Winslet, who plays his sister, Mark Ruffalo goes easy on the Southernisms as well. As for Gandolfini, well, you can take Tony Soprano outta Joisey but you can’t take the Joisey outta Tony Soprano. Overall, high school productions of “Li’l Abner” make more concerted stabs at down-home authenticity than this picture does.
Shorn of the vitality and vulgarity that should course through the veins of any picture about politicians and newspapermen, especially in the setting and time in question, this “All the King’s Men” plays out solemnly along the lines of a Greek tragedy, as Willie Stark becomes the epitome of the sort of power-hording, fear-inspiring, special-interests-favoring, thoroughly corrupt blowhard he had once attacked. This is supposed to be a cautionary tale about populism run amok, but it doesn’t put the chill in you because the film never connects to real life.
Once Willie is installed in the governor’s office, the pic tries to stir interest in a scam concerning the construction of a medical center that implicates Ruffalo’s earnest young medic, whose sister, Jack’s long-ago love, is having a secret affair with Willie. Climactic stretch involves Willie’s attempt to avoid impeachment by forcing the ever-loyal Jack to dig up dirt on Hopkins’ Judge Irwin, an old-school gent unalterably opposed to the governor’s seamy ways.
Denouement is impressive for having been staged at the ’30s deco-style Louisiana State Capitol building that Huey Long built and where he was later assassinated. But the sequence becomes protracted and pretentious in its treatment.
The film is luxurious to a fault where it should have been dirty, sweaty and gritty. One rarely even feels Louisiana’s sticky heat through the cool blues, grays and greens of lenser Pawel Edelman’s palette. James Horner’s full-blown mournful score further emphasizes the project’s grandiose proportions.