298 – All the King’s Men (2006)

Willie Stark, a man of the people, is elected governor of the great state of Louisiana only to engage in the same underhanded maneuvers against which he railed in his ascension to the highest elected office in the state. That’s essentially the story behind All the King’s Men, a reportedly faithful adaptation of the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name (also adapted in 1949), with Sean Penn as Stark and Jude Law as Jack Burden, the journalist who helped propel Stark to fame and fortune.

Told from Burden’s point of view, the story is supposed to show us that although power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, or something like that. Burden meets Stark before the latter even enters politics, trying to get a new elementary school built to code. Instead, local cronyism allows the school to be built on the cheap, setting the scene for a fire escape to break and kill three children. Stark decides to try to run things his own dang way, but it’s not until he’s energized by Burden and by his aide/lover Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson, who’s excellent here) that he transforms himself from just another white dude trying for some power into a galvanized, vibrant, gesticulating lightning rod for the have-nots in the state. Stark jumps from parish to swampland to hovel pledging to rid state government of fat cats and to work for the people. Somewhere along the way, though, he changes into the very thing he’d vowed to eradicate, all in the name of protecting those who could not protect themselves.

Penn is good as Stark, although his accent (along with that of most characters in the film) takes some getting used to, thick as it is. If you’ve ever seen the 1949 version starring Broderick Crawford, though, you might have had in mind someone a bit …larger, perhaps, more substantial. Penn’s a pipsqueak, but he’s a damn fine actor, so he’s somehow able to essay strength, conviction, and tenacity into a larger-than-life character. Were it not for the frequent incomprehensibility of his diction, Penn’s performance might be termed a powerhouse show. But I never got a feeling I knew why Stark changed. One minute he’s gladhandling, the next minute he’s applying pressure to a retired judge who won’t support him (Anthony Hopkins). Where was his motivation? Was it pure greed, lust for power, what? Warren’s novel probably elaborated a bit more than Steve Zaillian’s screenplay did.

At least Penn has a strong supporting cast around him, but Law still didn’t feel quite right as the reporter/columnist. Why did he join up with Stark in the first place? (Stark tells him it wasn’t for money or because Burden believed in Stark but because Stark was what he was and Burden was what HE was, whatever that means.) Essentially, the character of Burden was just a vehicle to tell the story of Stark’s rise and ultimate fall. In fact, that’s basically how the other characters come off as well, just window dressing to whatever scene the bombastic (and iconoclastic) Penn chews up and spits out.

There’s even a contrived romantic subplot – along with the ever-present specter of Buried Secrets – involving Burden and Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet). It’s fun to see Winslet and Law, both of whom have done excellent work elsewhere, but the relationship feels forced, as does the character of Anne’s brother Adam, played by Mark Ruffalo. Such wonderful, youthful talent, wasted! The twists involving these characters are pretty obvious, leading to hamfisted direction and over-the-top acting.

Ultimately, his remake fails to really grab the viewer, leaving one to watch it dispassionately when we should be rooting for Burden (and Stark, at least at the beginning). It should be a story of manipulation and coersion on both psychological and physical fronts. But it is fun, at least, to see Jackie Earle Haley (remember? The Bad News Bears’ Kelly Leak) as Stark’s sharpshooter bodygard.

**

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