Review written by Nathan Vass
All The King's Men is, of course, based on the 1947 Pulitzer-prize winning book by Robert Penn Warren, and stars Sean Penn as Willie Stark, one of American literature's most well-known characters. The story is modeled after the rise and fall of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, an idealistic politician who succumbed to great corruption. The book was previously adapted in 1949 by Robert Rossen, whose version won Best Picture. Steven Zaillian's new take costars Jude Law, and in roles that border on cameos, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, James Gandolfini, and Mark Ruffalo. One would understandably have certain expectations upon hearing such a cast, but the film does not live up to those expectations. Bluntly put, this is a terrible film. Good artists take risks, and sometimes they work, and sometimes they’re colossal misfires. This is the worst serious dramatic feature I've seen in theatres this year.
There are many reasons why the film has a 36 on Metacritic and an 11 (!) on Rotten Tomotoes, but the most prominent one is the editing. Zaillian, a typically great writer who rarely directs, just can't juggle his themes and maintain narrative coherency. He flits around, showing us events and attempting to contextualize them with narration and flashbacks and repeated scenes, and none of it works. He forgets to show not only the rise of Willie Stark (the Sean Penn character), but also his fall - we get neither the strong sense of idealism of the pre-governor Stark nor the corrupt, strong-arm attitude of the older Stark. The arc is missing. There is just so much going on, and it's stitched together so poorly - I feel it's apparent that quite a bit more footage was shot than we're seeing. The book is a monolithic 600-odd pages, and Zaillan doesn't consolidate the story- he mashes it together in an amateur fashion that is quite unexpected from the Oscar-winning writer of Schindler's List.
But even an extended 3 hour version wouldn't save the movie- there are numerous other damaging elements, the most detracting of which is Horner's cringe-worthy score, which is actually painful to listen to. Every important moment isn't underlined with music, it's underlined, amplified, italicized, and blown up. Scene transitions are marked with a repetitive and highly pretentious drumbeat-bell combination, which induce not only cringes, but laughter. It represents a new low in Horner’s oeuvre, and its use in the film is as much his fault as it is Zaillian's.
The cinematography is a classic example of a good cinematographer paired with a bad director; the film has instructional value in illuminating the difference between the role the director and the cinematographer have in making the final image. Although Pawel Edelman's lighting is genuinely beautiful, the conceptual aspect of the imagery is duller than several Ron Howard and Chris Columbus movies put together. Zaillian is unaware that he has the option of shooting his actors in something other than eye-level medium close-up. And although much of the film was clearly shot in Louisiana, there is absolutely no sense of the muggy, hot, bug-infested “deep south.” There is no sense of atmosphere. For all we know, we could be in Oregon. This is one of those movies that has so many potentially amazing scenes that are ruined by bland staging and overbearing music; that watching this film is like watching your inept kid sister play a videogame - an infuriating experience. You just want to jump in there and make everything right.
Despite all its misgivings, the film does have one enormous strong point, however- Sean Penn. Of everyone involved in this production, only he seems to understand the testosterone-infused, powerhouse nature of the novel and its main character. He overcomes bad screenwriting, hollow characterization, and uninspired direction, and gives the best possible performance under the circumstances, which is no surprise coming from Mr. Penn. Whether he's screaming rhetoric to the crowds, or quietly watching his adversaries across the table, it is simply not possible to take one's eyes off of him. As Toronto critic Rick Green eloquently puts it, Penn doesn't simply hold the movie up, he bench-presses it. There can be no question that he is among the premier actors of his generation. His exhilarating performance deserves to stand alongside the scenery-chewing fury of Al Pacino's Tony Montana, but Penn is shackled with a bad script and painfully mediocre surrounding performances. Again, this is not the fault of the actors, who are all talented individuals, but rather the result of astonishingly poor direction.
It is a sad shame that such a great performance inhabits such a terrible film. The lack of inspiration in Mr. Zaillian's direction is startling, particularly given the source material. Warren's novel is a ferocious, dynamic, rip-roaring animal of a book. This really could've been one of the great films of our era. It isn’t.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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