All the King’s Men (Sony Pictures, PG-13)

The audience is given no reason to care or even be interested in our new, asympathetic main character. We can't root for him or even hate him.

 

 

Most movie producers would kill for an all-star cast to sign on to their film. The bigger the names, the more likely you are to get your investment back when your latest masterpiece opens in theaters. In the case of All the King's Men, I wouldn't be surprised if the producers end up disappointed, because this cast backfires, as does the plot.

All the King's Men tells of the rise and fall of Louisiana politician Willie Stark (Sean Penn) in the 1950s. After being recruited by Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) to run for governor, Stark embraces his populist ideals and wins the election, much to the chagrin of the state fat cats and politicos who are on his shit list. Stark comes from modest means, so he hires former journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law), a very well-connected member of one of Louisiana's privileged families, to aid him in navigating the elite.

The story here is based on a 1946 novel of the same name, which loosely chronicles real-life Louisiana Governor Huey Long. Writer/director Steven Zaillian's adaptation leaves a lot to be desired, though.

The main problem with the script is that Zaillian doesn't know who his main character is. Every trailer for the film showcases Stark, who does indeed start out as the focus. Less than halfway through, though, it becomes obvious that this is really Burden's movie. We get far more of his family history and he even narrates the story.

What's wrong with that? Well, Burden doesn't really do anything. A protagonist needs to change or have something to accomplish as we watch him. Stark has passion, a drive to win the election and make changes, and quite a few good lines, but Burden has none of that. The audience is given no reason to care or even be interested in our new, asympathetic main character. We can't root for him or even hate him.

Meanwhile, you're bound to come away with nagging questions. Why does Stark choose a lieutenant governor whom he dislikes? Why would Burden agree to discredit someone who meant the world to him as a child? Why do two seemingly intelligent women have affairs with the same married man? What is all the supposed corruption that nearly leads to Stark's downfall? Why did Burden and his childhood love Anne (Kate Winslet) not end up together? Why, even, does Stark's bodyguard always drive on the wrong side of the road as oncoming traffic approaches? I'm all for not spelling everything out, but we are left guessing to often for the story to be fulfilling.

Now, back to that cast. Penn's a great actor, and while his talents are generally well used here, his character's fiery speeches-full of gesticulating, up-with-people empowerment-can seem a bit, well, overpowering. I suppose those scenes are meant to give the audience chills, as Stark makes promises to the poor and they get wrapped up in his plans for radical change.

The end result is far less effective, however; leading me to think that maybe we've seen the blazingly radical Southern politician a few too many times already for the archetype to mean anything. It is a testament to Penn's intelligence as a performer, though, that he manages to dial down in private moments. We still get all of Stark's fierce idealism, just in more manageable doses.

Law has a thankless job as Burden, a man born of privilege who seems to be trying to outrun his hoity-toity history and live a more common life. As noted, Law is given absolutely nothing to do. I'm not convinced that Law is a solid actor as opposed to being a really charming and pretty boy. In All the King's Men, he's got so little to grab onto that there's no way this performance is going to convince anyone.

Most of the cast is equally relegated to unsatisfying roles. Patricia Clarkson has the most glaringly ridiculous part in the film as a member of Stark's inner circle once he reaches the governorship. Could they show her as a strong woman working in a tense political situation? Oh, of course not. Clarkson spends most of her time on camera complaining about her married lover cheating on her with other women who also aren't his wife.

Gandolfini and Winslet join Anthony Hopkins and Mark Ruffalo as other well-known names rounding out the cast. Have you noticed the abundance of Brits playing American southerners here? Winslet, Law, and Hopkins are suitable enough for their roles, but their dialects are another story. Winslet sounds American, but not at all Southern, Law is flowery enough to sound like a stereotypically gay American, and Hopkins is obviously still British.

Even with all this, Ruffalo is the only one here who is woefully miscast. There's just something about him that is too modern and urban. He looks out of place as soon as we see him, and he seems to know it. Plus, Ruffalo could only muster a slight drawl about every fifth word. Here's hoping they all do better next time.

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