At the 2005 Academy Awards, Sean Penn famously demonstrated that he is utterly humorless by admonishing Chris Rock for having poked fun at Jude Law. Penn is a great actor, maybe the best of his generation, but his performance onstage that night wasn't one of his better moments. Perhaps it's fitting that both Penn and Law share screen time in the 2006 remake of All the King's Men, a movie that knows a thing or two about being utterly humorless.
If nothing else, one must admire the sheer cojones of the enterprise, especially that of director-writer Steven Zaillian. Give the guy credit for thinking big. The source material, after all, is Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 novel. A bona fide classic of 20th century American literature, the book was made into a movie in 1949, an adaptation that went on to earn Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor (Broderick Crawford).
This latest incarnation adheres closer to the twists and turns of Warren's novel than did the 1949 picture, but with far less satisfying results. In a thinly veiled portrait of Huey "the Kingfish" Long, who governed Louisiana in the late 1920s, All the King's Men chronicles the life and times of political demagogue Willie Stark (Penn). Our narrator and vantage point, newspaper reporter Jack Burden (Law), meets Willie Stark in rural Louisiana, where the man is crusading against corrupt school administrators over the shoddy construction of a school. Jack, seduced by Willie's earnestness and aw-shucks charisma, soon becomes one of Willie's closest confidantes. Eventually, Stark's concerns about the school prove to be prescient, a tragic outcome that fuels his rising political star.
Up to a point, that is. Willie is persuaded to run for governor by political operatives Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) and Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson), but he is set up to be a dupe. The power players intend to use Willie's candidacy to split the "cracker" vote, thereby throwing the race to their true candidate of choice.
When Willie discovers the scheme, it awakens the beast inside him. Suddenly the small-town hick turns into a fire-breathing populist, a transformation that sweeps him into the Louisiana governor's office on a landslide win.
Curiously, 1949's All the King's Men feels more relevant in today's political milieu than does the updated version. Penn's scenery-chewing performance is a big part of the problem. His interpretation of Willie Stark isn't so much a firebrand populist as he is a mad dog, a cartoonish figure complete with flailing arms and an overwrought accent more akin to the Kingfish of "Amos 'n' Andy" than Huey "the Kingfish" Long. Even so, Penn sounds like the real McCoy compared to Gandolfini's nearly incomprehensible stab at Cajun-speak. He sounds like Tony Soprano after a night of painkillers and Robitussin. Mark this one down, boys and girls, when it comes time to vote in the Academy Awards of Worst Fake Southern Accents.
What a wasted opportunity. Zaillian has assembled an extraordinary all-star cast -- in addition to the aforementioned actors, there is Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins and Mark Ruffalo -- and, without exception, their considerable talents are squandered.
Like Willie Stark, this All the King's Men is undermined by its own ambitions. The film is overly long, languorously paced and relentlessly ponderous. James Horner's excessive music score has the subtlety of a mallet. And Zaillian, whose screenwriting credits include Schindler's List and A Civil Action, makes a considerable misstep here. His dialogue -- much of it lifted directly from the novel -- is so weighted down by pretensions that it's a miracle the words don't go crashing through the floorboards of Willie's hotel penthouse. All the King's Men nearly chokes on its own solemnity.
The picture quality is stunning. Whatever the film's narrative shortcomings, Pawel Edelman's cinematography is lush and atmospheric, rich with light-dark contrasts and inky blacks. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the print transfer does justice to the visuals.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is immersive, if unremarkable. A French audio track is available, and viewers have the option of selecting subtitles in English or French.
Sony deserves credit for gussying up the DVD with a well-balanced assortment of bonus material. Featurettes include some standard fare, particularly The Making of All the King's Men (6:34) and a not-so-memorable La. Confidential: On Location with All the King's Men (8:27). A 10-minute, 15-second featurette, Shake Hands with the Devil, is an unconvincing attempt to make the movie relevant in today's political environment.
Thankfully, other extras add texture to the movie. An American Classic (13:10) is an informative introduction to Robert Penn Warren and his novel. Nevertheless, the best extra is easily The Legend and Lore of Huey Long. Boasting interviews with a wide array of historians, political scholars and Louisiana state officials, the mini-doc succinctly covers one of the most flamboyant and compelling figures in the annals of U.S. politics. Its 23 minutes and 17 seconds are decidedly more interesting than all 128 minutes of the DVD's main attraction.
Finally, the disc offers three deleted scenes, including a seemingly interminable alternate ending. Taken together, the clips have a 22-minute, 20-second running time.
Sean Penn's over-the-top portrayal and the film's melodramatic plot twists can make for a campy appeal, but that's a far cry from the serious-minded picture that the filmmakers had in mind. Zaillian reportedly had made a conscious decision not to see the 1949 movie until he had wrapped up shooting on this version. That's a pity. Perhaps he could've saved himself the effort.