"All The King’s Men" is handsomely mounted. It features a stellar cast. And it’s a misfire from the opening frames. The film, which makes its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, has all the trappings of an Oscar-bait prestige picture, only without any of the emotional resonance or insight into the politics of its era — or ours. It’s never clear what the movie is trying to say.
For starters, "All The King’s Men" pales in comparison with the 1949 original. That film, based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren (itself loosely based on the career of Huey "The Kingfish" Long) starred Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, a man who begins his political career as a true-believing populist hell-bent on reclaiming his state from the fatcats before getting drunk on his own power. In contrast, leading man Sean Penn seems like a mad huckster from the outset; his performance is so odd that it hardly seems he will make an active descent into evil — since he acts like he’s already there.
The film shows Stark preaching the populist gospel in the backwaters of Louisiana, much to the consternation of the plutocrats who run the state from behind the scenes. It seems that minutes after taking office, Stark is in danger of being impeached on corruption charges. None of this has any impact, since the movie hasn’t even bothered to explain who Stark is or what he’s done; he’s barely even shown governing.
Jude Law plays Jack Burden, a disillusioned newspaper columnist who decides to join Stark’s cabinet. His motivations are unclear; rather than a man burning with Stark’s idealism, he just seems to be along for the ride. Burton’s strained relationships with childhood friends, played by Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo, seem like much ado about nothing, and his betrayal of the man who raised him, played by Anthony Hopkins, resonates so little because their relationship is never fleshed out to begin with. And his longing for Winslet’s character is a non-starter.
What else? In addition to squandering the considerable talents of Penn, Law, Winslet, Hopkins, Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, and James Gandolfini, writer/director Steve Zaillian ("A Civil Action," "Searching for Bobby Fisher") bogs the film down with pointless flashbacks; the dialogue is portentous and mannered; and the score resounds with unearned bombast.
Ultimately, "All The King’s Men" never justifies its own existence. We’re never sure what we should think of Willie Stark, we’re not sure what we’re being told about the world of politics, and when there’s already a perfectly good movie called "All The King’s Men," we’re not sure why there’s any need for another.