If you add it all up, the cast and crew of the political drama remake All the King's Men have enough Oscars, Emmys and Grammys to open a trophy shop. The ads trumpet this fact, in a series of glossy, slo-mo face shots accompanied by the words "Academy Award Winner Sean Penn," "Academy Award Winner Anthony Hopkins" and so on, until you start wondering if they're trying to sell a movie at all, or just tickets to a star-studded red carpet ceremony.
In fact, there isn't much of a movie here. All the King's Men is one of those prestige projects that comes along every once in a while to remind you that you can start with great material and an A-list cast and still end up with a leaden turkey. It's like a feast prepared with gourmet ingredients by a chef who got all the measurements wrong: Start with one cup Jude Law, add a five-pound sack of Penn, one teaspoon Kate Winslet and a barely-noticeable pinch of Mark Ruffalo. Roast the whole thing at a low temperature for two hours and then ladle on a gallon of James Horner's booming, overbearing score until there's no distinct flavor left at all.
The movie is out of whack from the beginning, when we're introduced to the corrupt '50s politician Willie Stark (Penn), who's racing across the Louisiana countryside in the middle of the night. He and his henchmen are off to do some nefarious deed (we eventually learn it isn't all that devious), accompanied by Stark's right-hand-man Jack Burden (Law). Then the movie flashes back five years earlier to more innocent times, when Stark was an earnest politician running for governor and Burden was a lazy, rich-kid journalist following his campaign. When the soda-pop drinking Stark figures out, however, that he's a patsy (his campaign is being funded by the competition to "split the hick vote") he adopts a fiery rhetoric and begins to win over the people.
Cruising into office on a mixture of ego and righteousness, Stark promises his constituents that he'll enact a series of sweeping social campaigns. But the state's right wing wants to bring him down, and then there's the question of where he'll find the money for all those new roads and schools he promised. He hires Burden to start poking around in places he shouldn't: shaking down businessmen and judges who conspire to smear Stark, one of whom happens to be Burden's own stepfather (Hopkins). To make matters worse, Stark begins using Burden's privileged childhood buddies (Winslet and Ruffalo) to accomplish his goals.
Robert Penn Warren's original novel plays like a bourbon-soaked, political version of The Great Gatsby, and it's already been turned into one Oscar-anointed film, in 1949. There's certainly enough maybe too much going on in the labyrinthine plot. But writer-director Steven Zaillian has taken the source material as gospel; he doesn't allow pulpy thrills or soapy melodrama to infect his would-be grand vision of American corruption. And he treats his stellar cast with kid gloves: It's as if he stood back and expected the actors to set fire to the screen, without any direction or guiding force. Penn flails his arms and digs into his "Nawlins" accent until he begins to look like a bobble-head doll on a car dashboard. Law slouches and tries to act like an entitled slob at one point, a character says he "looks like a cold plate of spaghetti" but trying to make Law look unappealing is a little like hiring an Armani model to play the real-life version of Homer Simpson.
It's also possible that we've been so worn down by rampant governmental corruption that the petty coercions and moral backsliding of All the King's Men seem quaint by comparison. A populist democrat betraying his ideals and strong-arming the competition? Who cares, when presidential elections can be bought for a price and entire wars are fought under false pretenses. But, more likely, the movie is simply undramatic. Zaillian can load his movie up with all the Oscar winners, beautiful cinematography and pointless visual foreshadowing (statues, crucifixes, spit-roasted pigs) he wants, but All the King's Men is still the cinematic equivalent of a couple of prescription-strength sleeping pills.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].