All The King's Men

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(Sean Penn and James Gandolfini).

It takes a lot of nerve to remake a movie which not only won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but also landed Oscars in the Best Actor (Broderick Crawford) and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge) categories. Yet that’s exactly what we have with All the King's Men (1949), a screen classic which Columbia decided it was time to revive to try to improve upon the old studio recipe.

Both versions are based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name revolving around the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a populist politician hailing from humble roots who ultimately falls prey to the same sort of crookedness and cronyism he had campaigned against. Stark’s political machine and career trajectory closely mirrors that of Louisiana Governor/U.S. Senator Huey Long, a charismatic figure from the Thirties who captured the people’s imagination with fiery speeches relating his grand ideas about redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor.

Where the original film was very convincing in portraying the transformation of a naive idealist into a ruthless crook, the new edition is merely a fatuous, self-important period piece. A too-complex-to-follow saga of Shakespearean proportions exploring such paired themes as power and corruption, love and betrayal, blackmail and coercion, and sin and redemption, this pretentious, meandering rehash devotes more attention to recreating the ambiance of a bygone era than to addressing, in a meaningful manner, the myriad moral questions it raises.

The film was directed by Steven Zaillian who has reinterpreted the source material as a highly-stylized neo-noir. Regrettably, Zaillian somehow failed to coax even one dynamic performance or decent Southern accent out of a stellar cast comprised of Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini and Mark Ruffalo. The result is an emotionally-disengaging, if visually-captivating, experience of no salutary effect.

This story unfolds in the Fifties where we first find Stark (Penn), a teetotaler and family man, out on the campaign trail for Governor of Louisiana. A novice, he’s blissfully unaware that he’s being managed by a shady operator (Gandolfini) with intentions to split the vote, not to win the election. Stark wises up fast, however, and replacing the backstabber with a well-connected reporter (Law), tears up his stump speech and starts speaking to crowds straight from the heart.

The honest approach works and he wins in a landslide, and almost immediately begins to adopt all the graft-taking, influence-peddling, boozing and womanizing ways of the outgoing administration, the belabored point being the age-old maxim that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Meanwhile, the gov becomes embroiled in several sordid subplots, one involving a crooked judge (Hopkins), a femme fatale (Winslet) and her strait-laced brother (Ruffalo).

But with every character a shallow caricature of a familiar, simplistically-drawn archetype, don’t expect much of a payoff should you choose to invest two hours in this bloated borefest.

Fair (1 star). Rated PG-13 for sex, epithets, ethnic slurs, violence and partial nudity. Running time: 120 minutes.  Studio: Columbia Pictures.

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