All the King's Men (2006)

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Review #256 of 365
Film: All the King's Men (2006) [PG-13] 128 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $13.75
Where Viewed: United Artists Denver Pavilions Stadium 15, Denver, CO
When 1st Seen: 24 September 2006
Time: 3:45 p.m.

Directed by: Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer)
Screenplay by: Steven Zaillian based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren

Featured Cast (Where You Might Remember Him/Her From):
Sean Penn (The Interpreter) • Jude Law (The Aviator) • Anthony Hopkins (The World's Fastest Indian) • Kate Winslet (Finding Neverland) • Mark Ruffalo (Rumor Has It...) • Patricia Clarkson (Good Night, and Good Luck) • James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos") • Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears [1976]) • Kathy Baker (Cold Mountain)

Soundtrack: order the CD soundtrack below

Click for 'Review Lite' [a 150-word or less review of this film]
Here's an idea for when you run out of ideas. Go to the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences on-line data base and search for a movie that won a bunch of Academy Awards® and remake it. Of course, you face two problems before you even try to get somebody to fund your movie. First, people will ask you why you need to remake a movie that has already been deemed to be so great. Second, you will be told that if you try this, you better make one heck of a good movie or you'll be in deep, deep trouble, and you're already going to start out in hot water with anybody alive who remembers what will now be called the classic to your copy. Oh, and watch out for the vindictive movie critics who will start you off with zero stars and use their review of your film to prove how smart and smug they can be. So, Steven Zaillian began this effort to remake all the King's Men well behind the 8-ball. When he cast the film for the next generation which meant casting Sean Penn as the rags to riches governor of the great state of Louisiana, Willie Stark, Jude Law as his Jack Burden, and Kate Winslet as his Anne Stanton. If you are like I am, and you've not seen the original, you will suffer a lot less than critics and fans of the original for you won't have a point of reference. Wish I could agree with a lot of my colleagues that because the first version won best picture no movie could equal let alone exceed it, and that it must be the definitive version of the film. Nothing on this earth will ever convince me that the film version of the Broadway musical for Chicago was the best picture of 2002. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was, hands down, by far, better than Chicago, and even it would fall a shabby third place behind The Hours, and the years true Best Picture, The Pianist. So, I have not seen all of the films of 1946 to nor the nominees against with the first All the King's Men competed. I just know that just because it was named the best picture doesn't mean it was the best, doesn't mean someone else might not have a vision for it, and that critics and fans should dismiss it out of hand with smug phrases and complete character assassination. Also, it makes no sense to bother to debate the whether or nots about if this remake should have gotten the green light, it got it, it's made, it's at your multi-plex running 4 times a day right now. So, my take is to start from scratch and, without giving away the plot as so many of my contemporaries either confuse as film criticism or need to pad their columns to meet the needs of their editors, give a fair review of the film.

Set in Louisiana with locales as diverse as downtown New Orleans and Baton Rouge to rural towns and mansions in the swamps, the film affords a great historical look at the diverse landscapes of the Pelican State. The story starts off in the future, with now governor Willie Stark in his motorcar with his driver / bodyguard, Sugar Boy (Jackie Earle Haley), and his trusted aid / press secretary former Lousiana Chronicle writer, Jack Burden on their way to stave off Stark's impending impeachment by convincing Judge Irwin (Sir Anthony Hopkins) who just happens to be Burden's semi-step father to support that Stark is not really corrupt. Flashback then to five years earlier when Burden and Stark first met, and Stark, then treasurer for his small town in rural Louisiana was fighting but failing to end corruption in his town's governance. Enter Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), a political analyst who travels to meet him after his predictions that the corrupt bidding process on the contract to build a new school house would end up being bad for the county and the school makes him hero when three children are killed in a tragic fire as the fire escape crashed to the ground below due to its having been built with shoddy materials. Tiny Duffy gives Willie a song and dance about how he believes that Willie should forget these aspirations and think bigger—run for governor. Willie gives it some thought and agrees to throw his hat in the ring. Jack Burden is assigned by his editor to cover Starks's campaign. Without wishing to give away a single solitary additional detail of the plot, it makes sense to just introduce the rest of the cast. Anne Stanton and Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo) have been Jack's friends since childhood. In fact, as teenagers, there were some sparks between Anne and Jack. Jack's father died when he was a young boy leaving his mother (Kathy Baker) a wealthy widow. She entertains a long-term relationship with Judge Irwin. Finally, once Stark's campaign gets off the ground, Tiny Duffy brings in Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson) to help run and advise the campaign.

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Now, you already know from the lead in that Willie Stark wins the election. You don't know by how much, and you don't know his platform. I know a lot of people cannot get past Penn's performance as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. They still think of him as Madonna's ex-husband and not as a serious actor. All the more reason, then, to stop and really think about his performance here. If he were anybody else, playing any other role, he'd be getting Oscar® buzz. Even though history will reveal that Willie Stark's character was based on corrupt populist governor Huey Long, this version of the character and this performance will have you cheering in the aisles and begging Willie Stark to run for governor of your state. Where are the politicians today, since we now know that everyone has skeletons in the closet and a media hell bent on opening the door of every one of them, who at least claim to care about the people? Who aren't in the back pocket of industry before they even hit the campaign trail, and who don't enter on a platform of special interest groups? Actually, there's very little in this version of the film that leads us to believe that Willy Stark is as corrupt as Huey Long was purported to be. He comes across as being as magnanimous as he is folksy, as triumphant as reverent, and as animated and passionate for the cause of the poor "hicks" of which he is one as he is stubborn and committed to the righteous cause of serving the people. He is a true man of the people, and the people love him. Rocket science won't be needed to guess that the rich people do not love him. They do not love hearing that the tax benefits they've enjoyed will now go to building roads, and schools, and hospitals for the poor. So, the story turns into a political chess match with people gravely underestimating Willie Stark's ability to play the game. It won't even be until the end that the full scope of the brilliance of his work will sink in. Unfortunately for Willie, he will find the struggles against alcohol, women, and personal corruption as challenging to his success as the many roadblocks his enemies will construct in his path. He is imperfect. Some will feel he's no better in the end that the people he ousted. And, I'll go out on a political limb here and say those people are wrong. I'm not speaking about Huey Long. I've not the time to research his entire political history. This movie and book were not labeled "based on a true story" or even "inspired by true events". Therefore, it's not right or correct to critique Willie Stark in relation to Mr. Long. Willie Stark was in no way as bad as the politicians he ousted. Willie Stark was supposed to be the shill to spilt the "hick" vote and ensure the current governor's longevity. And, given the obvious conditions in Louisiana at the time, clearly, the current governor was doing very little for the people. It was time for him to go, and the people made their choice. The fact that he was elected by the people and not by the rich and powerful, says something. It might be something a lot of people in power don't want to hear. Maybe that's not the way they want democracy to work. Unfortunately, that's what happens when you teach people about democracy and teach them to love democracy. So, don't be upset if they listen, they vote, and they don't re-elect your candidate. Instead they elect someone they believe, rightly or wrongly, is going to do the right thing by them. And don't be surprised if they already know that power corrupts and this one is going to turn out no different in some ways than the last one. The difference is that they've put someone new in office who isn't beholden to the special interests of the past, and that has to be a good thing no matter how one looks at it.

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While Sean Penn delivers a career-defining performance that most certainly should, regardless of the negative characterizations he's received, make the top five list and earn him an Academy Award® nomination, Jude Law also finally proves himself extremely worthy of the worship he's garnered since his break out role in The Talented Mr. Ripley. His character is often the foil to Penn's, while the two become allies for reasons that Willie Stark says are due to the natural order of things, they are from equally alien worlds with entirely different principles. Jack operates on the notion that "what you don't know, can't hurt you" while Willie believes that what you can't hurt, you don't want to know. Jack is also the connector for Willie to high society. The Stantons are the children of the greatest politician in the history of the state. And, there's Judge Irwin, of course, who's been more of a father to Jack than his real father. Sir Anthony Hopkins proves, in his portrayal of the honorable judge with a jagged past, once again that he is one of the greatest actors to ever live. The role is not expansive like that of Jack and Willie, yet Hopkins brings every nuance in the folds of his wrinkled brow to bear on screen in emergence of this seeminly principled character. James Gandolfini and Patricia Clarkson do decent jobs with their characters, though some could say that Sadie Burke comes across as a bit too preoccupied with looks and sex. If there is a weakeness in the casting and the story, it has to be the soulful portrayal of Adam by Mark Ruffalo who simply does not look the part and the less than potent performance by Kate Winslet. As for Mr. Ruffalo, the Kenosha, Wisconsin-born actor looks like he'd be more at home ice fishing in Forest County than he does doing anything, anywhere, in the state of Louisiana. The same puppy-dog eyes look that were perfect for his character in Just Like Heaven, just make him look constantly confused in this film. Meanwhile, Ms Winslet who can electrify the screen as we bore witness in both Titanic and Finding Neverland, never gets in the groove of her character here. She never seems to know where she's going with the role. Moody, sullen, woe begotten, anxious, determined, harried, lost, she's all over the place. Given the importance of these two roles to the plot, it's a shame their parts turned out this way. It's difficult to say if they were misdirected, miscast, or mismatched. This film will not be remembered for its lively pace. It is deliberate and methodical sometimes also to a fault. Yet, there is no question the brilliant dialogue and its nuance would be all but lost were the pace quicker. Time is needed to allow it to seep in a bit, stew a bit, and pop.

Likely, there will be infinite criticism written about the accents or lack thereof by most of the actors in the film. I go back and forth on this issue in my mind. A large part of me believes that if you cannot do the accent well, you should not do it at all. Not everyone is Meryl Streep or Colin Farrell and able to do just about any accent perfectly at any time. On the other hand, I find it nearly as disturbing and nearly as prejudice to presume an expertise on accents or to feel that because a story takes place in the south it must be done with southern accents. Maybe it seems more authentic, but then so many films have been made throughout the USA where no one even noticed the accents. Sorry folks, people in the western USA do not refer to Oregon, Colorado, and Nevada as Or-eh-gone, Coal-o-raw-dough, and Nuh-vaw-duh, they are Or-ih-gun, Call-uh-rah-do (said very fast with little emphasis on any one vowel), and Nih-vahd-ah. So, if you are going to pick on Brits trying to do 1950s Louisiana, then you've got to pick on native Chicagoan Robin Williams claiming to do a Californian accent mispronouncing all of the western states in RV. Yet no one ever does that because, theoretically, the western USAers all speak the same lingo. Right? Wrong! Honestly, none of the accents used in this film are that great. Sometimes, Mr. Penn's is too thick to be intelligible. Yet, that's not really the point. If you wanted total authenticity of accents, you'd have to use people alive in 1950 Louisiana because, believe it or not, regional accents change over time as do regional expressions. Not many people said, "Oh my Gawd, that's so sweet, dude," in 1950s Los Angeles did they? So, while I am certainly belaboring the point here, if the accents are the only things one can think of to use to rip this film apart, try again. It's kind of useless and not really the point.

For Sean Penn's performance alone, the film is worth seeing, but for a really interesting story about a man who seeks to do what is right amidst a political system that has basked in cronyism and favored the upper class for generations, the 2006 version of All the King's Men states a powerful, timely, and worthwhile message. Beware of all politicians no matter their message. Their goal is always to be elected. But also realize they are mere mortals not the Gods the privileges afforded the positions may make them appear to be. In a democracy, they should have no more power than with which the people endow them. And, they should be voted out as soon as they think they have more. This requires an attentive populace that follows the actual activity and decisions of those they elect, not abdicating the responsibility to leaders of special interest groups, journalists, or activists.

Lastly, there is something about this film which I worry people who read the book or saw the original may completely miss. They might miss what this film is capable of doing on its own, they may presume it a past to which it cannot possibly live up. They will see Jude Law's performance as quiet and subtle too avoid his less than perfect accent; when, in fact, this characterization is meant instead to embody all of the doubts about the purpose of life and where it's heading as long as we continue to live in an idealized world. They would miss entirely the scene where Burden asks Stark to reveal the meaning of his wink he gave during their first conversation when he drank his orange pop (yes, sorry Easterners, you are the only ones who still call it soda) with two straws. There are so many little scenes and interactions like this that someone focusing on the authenticity of the accents or the adherence to the original film or book would simply not notice nor appreciate. On one final note, I've got a very hard time comprehending critiques of All the King's Men with ratings of 2.5 stars. With all due respect this movie was more than half a star better than the Johnny Knoxville film that also opened this weekend.

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Other Projects Featuring All the King's Men (2006) Cast Members
Sean PennJude LawAnthony Hopkins
Kate WinsletMark RuffaloPatricia Clarkson
James GandolfiniJackie EarleKathy Baker
Other Projects Involving All the King's Men (2006) Director
Steven Zaillian
CD Soundtrack
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All the King's Men (2006) Review-lite [150-word cap]
Steven Zaillian began his effort to remake Academy Award®-winning All the King's Men well behind the 8-ball. He cast the film for the next generation: Sean Penn as the rags to riches governor of Louisiana, Willie Stark, Jude Law as Jack Burden, and Kate Winslet as Anne Stanton, set the film a bit closer in time, and adhered closely to the true star of the story, not Willie Stark, but Jack Burden who serves as Stark's constant side-kick and foil. And, he should have known he'd have to endure smug critiques which would focus on the accents of the cast and the differences between the original and the remake rather than on this film alone. Penn delivers a career-defining performance, Law also finally proves himself worthy of the worship. There are so many perfect little scenes and interactions that ones too focused on accents or previous versions will miss.

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