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All the King’s Men (01/03/2007)
By David Robinson

Now available on video and DVD, All the King's Men is an old-fashioned movie: this will please some, annoy others"”especially the younger (18-34) demographic which is the target audience of choice these days. Based on Robert Penn Warren's classic novel about love, politics, and corruption in the South, this second adaptation is not as good as its 1949 Oscar-winning predecessor.

Director/screenwriter/co-producer Steven Zaillian, who claims not to have seen the original film, loads this one with symbolism and slows the pace far below the tolerance line of the average contemporary viewer. He plays to the considerable acting strengths of his lead, Sean Penn, but he also (paradoxically enough) gives Penn too much screen time. As Willy Stark, a character based on Louisiana's Gov. Huey "Kingfish"¯ Long, Penn gets plenty of cinematic histrionics as a populist leader railing at the big corporations and their henchmen who did (and do?) control much of the money and power. After the second or third of these stem-winding speeches, however, we'd rather see the focus go elsewhere.

Specifically, it needs to move to Jack Burden, the observer and voice-over narrator of Willy's rise and fall. Jude Law is a good enough actor, but he can't carry the weight of this cynical rich boy turned political factotum. Law's fellow Brits, Kate Winslow as Jack's lost love and Anthony Hopkins as his surrogate father, also fail to bring the necessary energy"”not to mention the appropriate accents"”to their roles, further slowing the pace.

All that said, the film has its strengths. The serious subject matter and theme"”still, alas, all too relevant"”considerably outweigh most of the competition's. Penn will likely get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, unless the movie's tepid box office showing drags him down with it. Cinematographer Pavel Edelman does some nice work with the sepia-like flashbacks in which Jack recalls his former life and love, as well as with the lighting in general, emphasizing the murky atmosphere of deception, corruption, and outright lying. And Patrizia von Brandenstein's production design accurately and interestingly captures the late 40's/early ‘50's era.

Zaillian wastes valuable time and obscures the theme by repeated Christian symbolism; on the other hand, he adds a visual layer of meaning to emphasize the novel's points. For instance, Burden constantly, characteristically plays solitaire, and he often plays the one-eyed Jack, the move emphasizing the player's own partial vision and anticipating his disillusion and eventual insight into the truth of things"”including his own past and heritage"”once he gets down in the dirt.

All the King's Men is rated "PG-13"¯ for violence, sexual content, and brief nudity. The rating seems about right, if irrelevant, since no thirteen-year old I've ever known would be interested in this one. Adults, presumably more patient, will find things to savor, though perhaps not enough to justify over two hours running time. 


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