Friday, September 22, 2006

All the King's Men

Written and directed by Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Robert Penn Warren

I have not seen the 1949 Best Picture, or read the book, but All the King's Men is an example of some of the most deceptive advertising of the year. The marketing wisely touts Sean Penn's performance, with his bombast, but the movie isn't really about him. I have since done a little research on the novel, and indeed the book focuses on his lackey, Jack Burden (the narrator), played here by Jude Law.

So, the movie follows the book's story, but I'm not so sure it follows in entertainment. The story is of Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Willie Stark (Penn) who is asked by seemingly well-intentioned campaign experts Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) and Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson) to run against the two major candidates. A reporter, Jack Burden (Law), following the campaign, is indirectly responsible for Stark finding out that his candidacy is merely a play to split the "cracker vote," and he starts running on his own, sweeping the state of Louisiana and rising to power with idealistic goals. Burden quits his newspaper job shortly after, and Stark comes in to hire him as a dirty-work underling.

During his time as governor, Stark does become corrupt, and faces impeachment from senators in the pocket of rich oil companies, who have hated him from the beginning. He needs Burden to reverse public opinion by first finding a skeleton in the closet of former judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), who was Burden's surrogate father growing up. It leads to reunions with his first love, Anne Stanton (all-time beauty Kate Winslet), and her brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo). Tragic revelations will occur.

I think where the movie loses it a bit is in the way it is told. I don't think it does a good job of establishing the relationships in a meaningful way. One of those relationships is Sadie Burke's to Willie Stark. She always comes to complain to Jack about his two-timing her, but we never see Burke and Stark together--I think Zaillian tried to be too subtle with this; this relationship is very important. Also, a revelation midway through is so matter-of-fact, that if you have no prior knowledge of the book or the first movie, it's hard to figure out what exactly is being said and what it means.

The way it is cut, there are too many flashbacks that don't tell the whole story. Like, we know that Jack, Anne, and Adam used to hang out, and we sort of get the idea that Jack and Anne used to be young lovers, but the numerous flashback sequences go through some of the same territory over and over again until finally we are given the point. Jack and Judge Irwin also have flashback sequences, but again, it's the same territory. We know that Jack and Irwin's relationship provides dramatic weight to the dirty dealings of the present--Zaillian hammers this relentlessly while other important factors are ignored in the name of subtlety.

Inside of all this fumbling, there is a pretty darn good story, one with a good plot. But it's like you got someone who stutters and backtracks and forgets pertinent pieces of information when they tell it. This is amazing coming from a veteran like Zaillian, who has written numerous screenplays such as Schindler's List and was the writer/director of one of the best dramas of the nineties, Searching for Bobby Fischer. Here, in this case, something got muddled during production. You never can fix a movie after production, as Zaillian did here and led to the year-long delay; you have to have a clear vision beforehand, and unfortunately, a potentially powerful movie turns into a lame duck.


At 9/22/2006 04:58:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

I actually got to see a Sneak Preview of this earlier this week, and I could not agree more. In fact, I think I liked it less. There are some good performances here, and yes Penn is dynamite as usual, but as Richard Roeper stated in his review, Penn is ACTING here more than he is acting.

I also couldn't figure out why a tale in the deep, deep South you give three of the main roles to British people (Law, Hopkins, and Winslet). Winslet gives her always reliable midwestern bit, but hey, we're in the South. Jude Law tries his best, and does okay. Hopkins pulls a Sean Connery and just goes with the English accent.

And Zalian's biggest change from the source material and the original film (Which is one of those not bad, but why the hell did it win an Oscar kind of deals) is the setting. The original source material is set around the Great Depression which makes a rise to fame like this mostly on big speeches make more sense. However, Zalian decides to put this in the Post-World War era which doesn't give this much credence what so ever. What a god awful waste of time this film is.


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