September 21, 2006

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All the Kingís Men (PG-13)
Sean Penn plays a politician who rises from corruption-fighting rube to power-hungry governor in All The Kingís Men, an adaptation of the Robert Penn Warren book.

He also plays an actor with an at-times incomprehensibly over the top Louisiana accent. In a contest between Nuanced Portrayal of a Complex Man and Ah Gaaah-ron-tee Hamminess, guess which half of Pennís Oscar-seeking-Jeckel-meets-Cajun-seasoned-Hyde performance won?

To Pennís credit, his come-again-please speech patterns werenít the movieís worst. Plenty of actors went too thick on the accents and too light on subtlety. Perhaps they were following the lead of the screenplay, which went heavy on melodrama and light on the sort of political insights the movie clearly wants to make.

Willie Stark (Penn) is a soda pop-drinking, wife-adoring country treasure who finds himself on the outs with the powers that be in his town after he attempts to tell the populace about graft involved with the building of a local school. The populace isnít interested until the schoolís shoddy construction leads to a collapse and the death of some students. Riding that he-stands-for-the-little-man wave and pushed by political operatives (James Gandolfini, Patricia Clarkson) from the city, Willie decides to make a run for Louisiana governor.

Willie throws his whole heart into the bid but, as newspaperman and member of the stateís aristocratic class Jack Burden (Jude Law) realizes, the bid is really just a scam. The powers are really just trying to split the hick vote to ensure the victory of a candidate backed by the oil companies.

Jack, something of an earnest guy beneath his jaded pose, eventually lets Willie in on the trickery, which leads to a conversion in the politician. Where Willie used to show crowds pie charts and talk about allocation of funds, he now breaths fire and turns his demand for better public services (roads, schools, hospitals) into an urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, class battle. He wins, but then the fight with the establishment truly begins to heat up.

Jack, formerly an observer, takes a job with Willie but finds himself not just crafting message but also digging up dirt on Willieís political opponents, including Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), a man who was a father figure to Jack growing up. As Willieís need for political capital expands, Jack is forced to bring in another family of childhood friends, brother and sister Adam (Mark Ruffalo) and Anne (Kate Winslet). Adam was Jackís best friend; Anne was his childhood sweetheart. As he sees Willie become ever more the kind of man he once railed against (complete with drinking and a series of girlfriends in addition to his steady mistress), Jack must battle with his own conscience over what heís willing to do for Willie.

You can tell that this movie went mushy at some point in its creation from its trailers. The trailers focus on the Huey Long characteristics of Willie and then make a strange collage of the other characters. But in the movie, itís the fumbling crowd of fading aristocrats and heartsick nambie-pambies that are Jackís friends and family who hold center stage, not Willie and his goings-on. And if the trailer doesnít let you know how much the marketing campaign tried to cover for the sloppy work of the film, the year All the Kingís Men spent on the shelf verifies it.

Now, true, the book also puts narrator Jack Burden in the thick of the story. But the film goes too deep into his romantic disappointments, his family relationships and his weird, Tennessee-Williams-character-like fixation with Winsletís Anne. Short of a few speeches ó backed by lighting and score that are far more dramatic than the words themselves ó we seldom see Willie as his career and his moral troubles progress. And his absence is notable. We are no longer watching the king and his men or just even the kingís men themselves. We are watching the kingís man wrestle with his personal failures. Itís like a film about the 1919 World Series that spends most of its time on the heartsick water boy.

Whatís worst about All the Kingís Men is whatís worst about watching a idealistic politician turn into another fat cat: so much potential wasted. C-

ó Amy Diaz


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