a commentary by Tony McRae

Given its pedigree and star-studded cast Stephen Zallian's “All the King’s Men,” was a nearly certain contender for Oscar consideration in 2005.  Remember that the original 1949 movie (based on the 1947 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner by Robert Penn Warren) won 3 AA: Best Picture, Best Actor (Broderick Crawford) and Best Supporting Actresss (Mercedes McCambridge).  

Alas, the picture was pulled before its December release--almost always a bad sign.

Fast forward nine gestating months later to September 2006.  ATKM arrives stillborn, an incoherent mess that no doubt will be snubbed by the Academy when the 2006 Oscar nominations are announced early next year. 

So what happened?  Was the cast too big, too prestigious, the stars wanting additional screen time?

Zallian's game plan was to stay close to the Robert Penn Warren’s book, unlike the ’49 movie.  This was a mistake.  Warren’s novel mixes southern gothic with depression-era politics, the past and present inextricably linked like ingredients in a spicy gumbo.  The concoction is too heavy for this movie, and the screenplay never does sort it all out.  Instead of keeping Willie Stark (Sean Penn) on center stage, Zallian follows Jack Burden (Jude Law) and his noir-like investigation into the affairs of a retired judge (Anthony Hopkins) who, for reasons unknown, is fomenting a movement to have Gov. Willie Stark impeached.  We have flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks which do little more than muddy an already confusing timeline. 

My guess is this script went through so many cuts and revisions that it became impossible to sort it all out.  For example, by not staying with Gov. Willie Stark, we’re told--not shown--that he is corrupt.  In fact we don't see Governor Stark governing at all.  His rants, his seductions are tossed at us willy-nilly.  What drives this guy, what turns him into a corrupt politician?  The answers, I sense, are on the cutting room floor.  

As for the role of Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson)—the role that won McCambridge her Oscar, we’re completely surprised when she bursts out that she’s being two-timed by Stark.  We didn’t even know they were had a relationship.  My only supposition is that Sadie's role was severely cut so that her time onscreen was little more than a bit part.  By the way, Meryl Streep was offered the role but had a conflict.  Lucky for her.

And then there's Sean Penn in what was clearly intended to be an Oscar-sized role.  I've always thought of him as an actor who knows how to hold his emotions just below the surface.  He doesn't need the histrionics that director Zallian imposes on him--the arm waving, the curled lips, the bully politician.  In the original Broderick Crawford's longshoreman's body and blunt voice could roll over anyone in his path.  And it worked.  Penn's Willie Stark would have run for cover. 

The most obvious miscasting is James Gandolfini playing a southerner.  Almost all the accents seem forced, but Gandolfini's was laughable.  The exceptions were Patricia Clarkson (who grew up in Louisiana), Jackie Earle Haley (who has little to say), and Anthony Hopkins who was smart enough not to try speaking southern.

The camerawork was studied, and the overblown music by James Horner made sure you weren’t missing anything.  All in all, a major disappointment.

Rated PG-13 for adult situations.