The Good: Generally good acting, story and character
The Bad: Dilution of main story by focus on Jack Burden, pacing
The Basics: When Jude Law's acting and his character's story begin to dominate All The King’s Men, the film goes from a promising political drama to a murky romantic mystery.
Whenever I write a movie review, I load up the IMDB to be sure I'm getting character and actor names correct. I was somewhat surprised - mostly from not having paid enough attention to the opening credits, I suppose - to see that Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo were portraying Anne and Adam Stanton for the latest movie I was watching. Winslet only recently appeared on my radar and my first movie with Mark Ruffalo did not impress me with him. All The King’s Men, which opens to a powerful soundtrack by James Horner, continues my rut where actor Jude Law fails to impress me. Here it is his portrayal of Jack Burden along with writer and director Steven Zaillian and novelist Robert Penn Warren's emphasis on Burden that almost sinks this movie.
Willie Stark is a populist advocate working in county politics in Louisiana when he is opposed by the powers that be in the political world. A government contract is given to a company that makes a schoolhouse that has inadequate fire escapes, leading to the death of three children. This inspires mobster Tiny Duffy to use Stark as a chance to effectively take the Governor's mansion of Louisiana, which in the late 40s, early 50s, is quite a big deal. Stark begins a campaign based on winning over the poor of the state and wins in a landslide. Once in power as Louisiana's governor, he finds himself blocked by the state senate and threatened with impeachment.
Mirroring Stark's rise to power is Jack Burden's journey as a reporter to a spin doctor for the governor. Burden's journey becomes a loop between his past and present as one of the advocates for impeachment is an incredibly powerful judge who happens to be Burden's (non-biological) father. As well, Stark becomes closely involved with the Stanton family, peers of Jack's who have integrity and social standing and who could potentially elevate Stark's political populism and activism to a respectable level.
The problem here is from the beginning the viewer wants this to be Willie Stark's story. Stark is intriguing as a character. The moment he casts off the mob influence and becomes a charismatic politician combining the progressive activism with the evangelical salesmanship by simply telling the truth as he sees it, Stark is a powerful character to watch. Whenever the movie is focused on his quest against the powers that be, All The King’s Men is engaging, intriguing and worthwhile.
The problem is that the film too infrequently focuses on Stark. While the first hour is all about Stark coming to power and his views and ambitions, the last hour plus of All The King’s Men degenerates into a convoluted tale of Jack Burden's trials as he seeks to aid Stark and resolve long unresolved romantic feelings.
As a political story, All The King’s Men succeeds. The problem is, Jack Burden's story is barely political. Burden becomes a detective, digging into the life of Judge Irwin to find any dirt he can to bring Irwin down to alleviate the impeachment pressure on Stark. As this is going on, Stark is busy fighting to get a hospital built for poor people in Louisiana, which needs the appearance of legitimacy. That comes from Dr. Adam Stanton who Stark - via Burden - influences to become a part of the project. The proximity of Adam, a childhood friend of Burden's, and the reappearance of his sister Anne, perhaps his great lost love, cause Burden to relive his past.
And Burden's past is not terribly interesting. Or perhaps it is, but this is not the venue for it. I don't care about Burden's lost love, it's a distraction from the Willie Stark story. Arguably, Burden's story could be all about what a man will do to maintain political power, but it's not nearly as compelling as watching Stark do his thing.
Willie Stark is played with electrifying precision by Sean Penn, one of those actors who suddenly came into legitimacy a few years back and has been a dramatic powerhouse since. Penn is surprisingly charismatic as Stark, manipulating his voice and body language with persuasive movement that make it convincing that Stark could work the crowds we see in the movie. This is one of Penn's best works and he steals every scene he is in.
Conversely, Jude Law is wooden as Jack Burden. "Wooden" describes Law's acting in almost every role and here it is not appropriate for Burden to be so . . . listless, stiff. Law's performance puts Burden at a distance to the viewer, making one care less about his journey and personality and instead causing the viewer to beg for the return of Penn's Stark to the screen.
All The King’s Men is supported by a decent cast including Sir Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, and James Gandolfini. Gandolfini seems typecast into the role of Tiny, but otherwise the supporting players are fine and they perform well with what they are given to do in this film.
Who will like All The King's Men? Certainly those frustrated with today's current political state. But they are less likely to enjoy this than The American President (reviewed here!) or reruns of The West Wing (reviewed here!). This movie is more suited to those who like murky romantic mysteries with a political edge. All of the important plot aspects turn on love and that's a fine motivation and makes for a decent story. Unfortunately, this story is not that one, not the way it is set up from the beginning and established in the opening parts of the film.
At least Mark Ruffalo and Kate Winslet did well.
For other works with James Gandolfini, check out my reviews of:
Where The Wild Things Are
In The Loop
For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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