“All The Kings Men” is being promoted as a star-vehicle for Sean Penn, owing to his showstopping performance as an all-additude-all-the-time political demagogue. But when actually sit down to watch it (not that I’m recommending you do so) you discover it’s star is Jude Law as the idealistic newsman who becomes a sidekick to Penn’s character… and then you realize that it’s okay, because it becomes readily apparent that the film itself is also under the impression that Penn has the lead. You don’t feel very good about either realization, because it’s the earliest and clearest signal that you’re about to endure a nearly 2-1/2 hour mess.
Set to a hillariously overbearing score by James Horner, the film follows the same outline as the classic Depression-era novel (and Academy Award winning original film) on which it is based: A names-changed biopic of Louisiana governor Huey Long, here rechristened as Willie Stark (Penn.) Stark is a self-described educated hick who starts out as a local anti-corruption muckraker, but finds himself in statewide spotlight when a shoddily-constructed school he had railed against collapses and kills three children.
Suddenly the media of the day is rushing to Stark for answers with all the gusto (and, come to think of it, all the missing foresight) of those who thurst microphones in the direction of Gangsta Rappers in the wake of the L.A. Riots. In short order he’s drafted to run for Governor (excuse me, Guv’nuh) a task which is hampered by his nonexistant skill as an orator… Until, that is, he discovers that he’s been set up as a third-party prop to split the “hick-vote” in favor of the very “fat cats” he’s running against. All at once, Stark transforms into a fire-and-brimstone superstar-preacher on behalf of worker’s rights.
Penn sells the HELL out of this switch, probably the finest turn of his career in at least a decade… but in catching fire as he does he procedes to suck all of the oxygen out of the rest of the movie. It’s the kind of performance that can’t help but shift all attention to itself… which is fatal if the film hasn’t been structured to accomodate such (i.e. this is why “Silence of The Lambs” keeps Hannibal Lecter locked up 90% of the time) and THIS is such a film.
The story unfolds largely through the eyes of Law’s Jack Burden, a Southern aristocrat who shunned his family’s cash and connections in favor of a newsman’s job. He becomes enraptured by Stark in the early campaign, and becomes his personal advisor when he wins the Governor’s seat. It’s through his person that we’re meant to experience the disillusionment that comes with watching populist People’s Champion’s innevitable metamorphosis into a tyrant. Were the film able to keep itself grounded to this perspective, it would make more sense when time abruptly skips forward and the tea-totaling, devotedly-married Stark has become a corruption-mired, scotch-swilling womanizer. Were the film able to restrain Penn, or at least his screen time, this would be more forgivable; but you can’t play a character as a near-total enigma when the music and the direction are telling us that he’s our primary focus. The audience is going to want to know WHY he’s changed, and the tired axiom about absolute power corrupting absolutely isn’t going to cut it.
More to the point: Law’s character has been principally drafted by Stark, he learns, as an envoy to the Louisiana aristocracy from which he comes: Specifically his old friend Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo,) a tormented doctor and son of the state’s last great Governor and elderly power-broker Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins) who was a surrogate father to Jack. Also in the mix is Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet) who is Adam’s sister and (wait for it) the unrequited love of Jack’s life. As Stark muscles through what would now be called a far-left agenda of taxing the state’s wealthy to build schools and hospitals, the old-boy power structure lines to up impeach him on charges of corruption… which Stark responds to by becoming even more corrupt as he tries to stop them. Hm… wonder how this’ll end for everyone involved? Maybe not well, y’think?
The film doesn’t work. In fact, it’s a collossal failure: Hammy, one-dimensional characters, pretentious overdirection and that wonderfully inappropriate score. It’s showiest character is ultimately it’s most empty, and it’s potentially interesting characters are shunted to the sidelines. Only perennial character actor Jackie Earle Haley, in the nearly-silent role of Stark’s personal bodygaurd Sugar Boy, comes off as a truly engaging presence outside of Penn during his fiery speeches.
What’s left is disasterous, but also instructive: This is the textbook example of the folly of setting out for “important and award-winning” as a goal instead of just “a good movie.” I’ve seen a lot of crummy Oscar-bait in my day (looking at YOU “Cold Mountain”) but this has to be the worst in a long time.
FINAL RATING: 2/10