According to its publicity, bringing Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All the King’s Men to the screen again has always been “a cherished dream” of executive producer James Carville — suggesting a lurking sense of payback frustration with the legacy of the real populist Southerner Carville himself helped to elect president. But first, let’s consider the project from the cheap seats, where it would appear to belong to Sean Penn. Let loose with what is remembered as a large, meaty, all-American role within a properly Pulitzered and still school-assigned megafiction (filmed already in 1949 and showered with forgotten Oscars), Penn goes for larger than life, wrapping his pinched frown around an unintelligible Louisiana drawl and swinging his arms like an autistic evangelist. (Maybe it’s the hick-Eraserhead hair, encouraging us to place this cracker politician somewhere between Penn’s special-kid in I Am Sam and his obliviously narcissistic guitarist in Sweet and Lowdown.)
Characterwise, Penn is most effective at boiling pots with tight lids — he’s an internal combustion engine, and here the actor he strains to echo most is 1930s ham-hock Paul Muni. A small man, Penn even tries to evoke the working-class blubber of the original version’s star Broderick Crawford (and the character’s model, Huey Long), pushing out his belly and swaggering as if he has a hundred more pounds to heave around than he actually has. It’s a florid, vein-popping spectacle, trying too hard and, in the end, seeming to know little under the skin about dirt-poor Americans.
Even so, Steven Zaillian’s film is faithful to Warren in that it centers not on Penn’s Willie Stark, 1930s redneck do-gooder turned corrupt Louisiana governor, but on his cynical, ethically vacant right-hand man Jack Burden (Jude Law), who narrates Stark’s rise from smalltime pot-stirrer to party stooge to self-made demagogue to, finally, a people’s leader easily given over to the dark side of legislative malfeasance and backroom skullduggery. Zaillian proceeds in typical adapt-a-big-book fashion, condensing, telegraphing, and boiling down drama into info-bytes, amid far too much smoky backlighting and a James Horner score that’s so self-important you want to take out the timpani with a grenade launcher.
Law is no asset — looking rather sadly like John Ireland (the actor who played the 1949 Jack Burden), he has little control over his accent and zero energy. Drowning his conscience in bourbon, Burden seems less despairingly snockered most of the time than simply uninterested. A Bogartian voice of dry fatalism, Burden is both the tale’s spoiled innocent and Crypt Keeper, doomily recounting the descent into iniquity, his own and everyone else’s, including strategist and Stark’s girl-toy Sadie (Patricia Clarkson), Burden’s lost childhood love Anne (Kate Winslet), and her brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo), an idealistic doctor suckered by Jack into Starkian service. Each suffers a dark night of the soul, or so it’s implied; Zaillian seems less concerned with making the novel’s intricate political machinations clear than simply filling virtually every scene with crucifixes. It’s hard to say why Stark is on the cusp of being impeached by the state senate, or why the public opinion of Jack’s retired-judge stepfather (Anthony Hopkins) is a matter of political life or death that warrants a historical investigation consuming half of the film. But it’s clear from the lurking crosses that there’s plenty of damnation, retribution, and redemption to be dished out to all concerned.
As if the film had a ponderous-metaphor deficiency, Stark’s hollerin’ governor press conferences are staged like fascist rallies, on the nighttime capitol steps. Carville or not, All the King’s Men is something of a naive dinosaur — for one thing, populist preachifiers with hammerhead morals like Long were artifacts of the 1800s. Pitching a fit over the lost idealism of the American machine seems a little thin once you realize, as Carville surely has, that the Huey Longs were aberrations.