Even a stellar cast made up of some of the finest talents in the business - Sean Penn, Jude Law, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins - can't save "All the King's Men" from being a tired, pointless remake of the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1949.
Robert Penn Warren based his original novel on the life and career of the notorious Huey Long, aka "The Kingfish," who served as governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932. Like Long, Warren's main character, Willy Stark, is a charismatic leader who offends the powers-that-be with his populist rantings, yet eventually becomes as lowdown, vile and corrupt as the politicians he initially railed against to get himself elected.
This theme of the corrupting influence of power - and the corrosive effect that corruption has on the American political system - may have seemed fresh and insightful in Warren's day, but it is strictly old hat today. Moreover, in Steven Zaillian`s pretentious rehash, Stark transitions from being an idealist to a cynic in such record-setting time that the audience is completely at a loss as to how to read the character. Is he a man genuinely committed to helping his fellow citizens who eventually loses his way, or is he just another snake-oil salesman from the get-go exploiting the gullibility of the masses to get what he wants? The film doesn't seem to know, and the audience, quite frankly, doesn`t really care.
Stunningly, the movie is helped not one whit by its strictly A-list caliber cast. Penn hams it up shamelessly as the over-the-top Stark, spewing spittle and bile, regardless of whether he is whipping a downtrodden audience into an emotional frenzy or plotting the downfall of his manifold political rivals. Law, on the other hand, underplays to the point of catatonia the part of the governor's idealistic assistant (and narrator of the tale) who sells his soul to the devil by doing Stark's dirty work for him, even going so far as to blackmail the very man who raised him, in order to prevent the governor from being impeached by the state senate. Clarkson, Gandolfini, Ruffalo and Winslet do little but stand around in the wings waiting for something dramatic to happen (as do we all), and Hopkins is simply too lazy to go through the trouble of even attempting a Louisiana accent let alone perfecting one. The movie definitely could have used some serious paring down from the original storyline, since it is stuffed to bursting with characters who come and go seemingly at random, and whom we really couldn`t care less about. To add insult to injury, James Horner's original music, with its overemphatic underlining and theater-rattling crescendos, should be studied in film schools as a model of how NOT to score a motion picture.
This movie doesn't hold a candle to such superior political dramas as "The Best Man," "The Candidate," "The Distinguished Gentleman" and, yes, even the original "All the King's Men," which boasted the incomparable Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in the lead roles. Despite its coming from a simpler time, there was fire and passion in that version of the tale, two elements that are sorely lacking in this meandering, lethargic and undercooked remake.