In 1946 Robert Penn Warren published a novel, All the King’s Men, which took Louisiana governor Huey P. Long as the inspiration for Willie Stark, a strong-minded southern agrarian politician of the 30’s. Willie’s story is told by his assistant, a more complex and ambivalent man, Jack Burden. Quite a story it is, involving lost loves, gunshot wounds, skullduggery, and finding out who somebody’s real father is. The novel won the Pulitzer, and the 1949 film version won three Oscars, so it must have seemed like a brilliant idea to do a remake. Pile on the big-name actors, spread a thick layer of thunderous music and dramatic lighting, and grab a basket for the posies that will be coming your way.
Even better, because the setting of this story is the duplicitous world of politics, it can be made to point to our president or, confusingly, just about anybody else. It was James Carville who initially suggested to producer Mike Medavoy that his favorite novel was due for a remake (Carville gets an executive-producer credit). Early in the film, shoddy construction of a school causes three children to die in a fire; in a New York Times
feature, Carville points out that this kinda sounds like those levees last year. And director Steven Zallian explains how a reporter connected the dots from W to Willie Stark: “a character who becomes sure of himself and runs roughshod over the judiciary, the arrogance of power.” On the other hand, Willie expresses strong beliefs, and that reminds Zallian of how he wished Al Gore had been more outspoken in 2004. And a voice on the soundtrack that says “Get the gun” during the opening credits comes from a recording made at the scene of RFK’s assassination.
Well, that’s straightened out. All that’s left is to take in the story, which is not as easy as it sounds because Sean Penn, as Willie, rumbles and slurs in a parody of southern backwoods patter that you have to think about for a moment and mentally translate. Penn is a terrific actor (in this film, especially when he’s swaying and shouting through drunken speeches), but the accent suits him like a bad toupee (speaking of, why the Lyle Lovett hair?). I say this as a native southerner. I have heard a lot of accents across the south. I grew up in Charleston. I have lived in New Orleans. I never encountered anything like Penn’s accent outside of movies like this.
Jude Law does no better in the role of Jack Burden. Granted, his southern accent is more comprehensible, but it’s less believable, and he’s just wrong for the part to start with. Jack is burdened, all right, a perceptive character with plenty of troubles, and Jude is just too pretty. He’s even prettier than Kate Winslett is here, which seems impossible. Kate, as childhood friend and sometime sweetheart Ann Stanton, wears thick black eyebrows and a wavy blonde mane. Winslett is a beautiful woman, but somehow the combination is heavy and graceless.
Patricia Clarkson is wonderful, as always, as Sadie Burke, and James Gandolfini is delectable as Tiny Duffy. Jackie Earle Haley is perfect in the virtually non-speaking role of Sugar Boy. Mark Ruffalo makes a game attempt at portraying Adam Stanton, but we don’t get to see much of him, and this absence unbalances the plot. He may have been trimmed back too far in Director Zallian’s attempts to get the story across more clearly. The film was due to be released last December, but test audiences left confused about the plot and characters’ relationships to each other (and some details are still foggy to me).
If it doesn’t sound like enough big names yet, add Anthony Hopkins as Judge Irwin, probably the most effective and engaging member of the cast. In general, it’s just too many big names bumping into each other and failing to mesh well. What isn’t accomplished on the screen is handed over to the soundtrack, and it labors and mourns and swells and shimmers as required, strong-arming the audience’s emotions like one of Willie’s goons.
And for all that grandiosity, there are some goofy mistakes. The boom mike descends into the frame several times during a couple of climactic scenes. (This may be a dumb question, but if you can CGI in a monster, why can’t you CGI out a mike?) When Jack goes to dig up dirt on a Savannah character, he is seen in a government office looking through a tome of “South Carolina Civil Suits.” And another thing: southerners don’t call carbonated drinks “pop” — maybe “soda” or “coke” or “soft drinks,” but not “pop.” And there weren’t clusters of roadside memorial crosses in the 1950’s. And the widow Littlepaugh has way too many candles and crosses going on; the designer doesn’t seem to understand how these elements are actually used in a devout life. She has a whole collection of altar crosses, as if she has been sneaking into churches at off hours and making away with them. And my sharp-eyed seminary graduate companion noted that the pastor at the funeral service is reading from a Book of Common Prayer with unlikely thumb tabs; if it’s meant to be a Bible, he’s reading the Gospel of John in the Old Testament. And the chaplain opens the state legislative session with a prayer anachronistically addressed to God as “You,” not “Thee.”
And don’t get me started on those accents again.
– Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.