Something Borrowed, Something Blew

Washington City Paper | September 22, 2006
"Does the world really need a new version of [blank]?" In this decade of relentless remakes and franchise-shaping before Installment No. 1 even hits the screens, the question is getting pretty tiring, and the ensuing debate is usually meaningless—nothing’s changing anytime soon. But All the King’s Men, whose release was delayed from last December, at least has a quasi-argument for its production. Democrat James Carville, the Louisiana political consultant with an outsize personality, spearheaded the project, stressing to producers the present relevance of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning novel. (Carville himself gets executive producer credit.) Warren’s book, its main character based on Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, was released in 1946 and turned into a film in 1949.

Warren’s main message? It may shock you: Initially idealist politicians often turn corrupt, bringing others down with them.

Maybe it was a surprise back then—populist Long served as governor from 1928 to 1932, then became a senator until his assassination in 1935—but it’s probably safe to say that for many people in 2006, that idea is pretty much a given. Besides the overall similarities he cited based on his perspective on the Bush administration, Carville pointed out one parallel between the book and current events: Part of what launched the career of Willie Stark, the fictional Long, is the shoddy construction of a schoolhouse whose eventual cave-in killed two students. It’s clearly comparable to the levees in Carville’s home state—though Katrina hit after All the King’s Men wrapped, and again, the situation isn’t something for which the public needs a cinematic metaphor.

So we’re still left with the question: Why mess with this old Oscar winner? Writer-director Steven Zaillian (1998’s A Civil Action) didn’t view the 1949 film, instead reimagining his version straight from the book (though he shifts the time period from the ’30s to the ’50s). The story is muddled but otherwise the same: Willie (Sean Penn) is a married, struggling door-to-door salesman who’s mouthy about his money-grubbing local politicians and runs for county treasurer. He loses, but his man-of-the-people campaign attracts the attention of journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law), who then follows Willie as he continues to find his way into government. Willie is introduced to Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), a Tony Soprano–ish tax assessor who convinces him to set his sights on the governorship. (“You could win without getting out of bed,” Tiny says.)

Willie begins campaigning with Tiny-scripted speeches and advice. But Jack and Willie’s aide, Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson), find out that the Everyman’s been set up to split the votes, and they tell him so. (Telepathically, apparently—a lot of questions get answered with an arched-eyebrow here.) So Willie outs Tiny during a speech, yells to the “hicks” in the audience that he’s also a hick and can therefore help them, and is on his way to the governor’s mansion. Exactly how and when Willie turns corrupt is unclear—Penn’s Willie yells to constituents like a nut from the very beginning, while staying low-key around his cronies—as is the point when he starts cheating on his wife, who shows up early and then is forgotten. Also out of nowhere, Jack begins yearning for an old love.

After a while, you become unsure whom exactly the movie is about. Law’s Jack narrates in an increasingly annoying, half-Southern, half-English drone that is admittedly fitting for the Brit’s flat, one-expression performance. Penn is inarguably a powerhouse, though that depends on one’s taste for scene-devouring and gonzo accents (the authenticity of Penn’s hick-speak is actually a source of debate). Clarkson—the only native Southerner—is in the film too little to make much of an impression, as are Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo. The also rarely seen but nonetheless magnetic Anthony Hopkins, who plays a powerful judge, tinges his Louisiana accent with a bit of his natural, slightly snooty-sounding Brit. With lots of ominously dim lighting and a scene hauntingly and elegantly set in the state capitol in Baton Rouge, which Long built and was also assassinated in, cinematographer Pawel Edelman at least gives viewers a pretty picture to look at. But that doesn’t save All the King’s Men from its own corruption: As the story branches out in all sorts of hard-to-follow directions, it’s clear that one fine cast—and more money thrown at a remake—has been wasted.

Washington City Paper

In a city where a great deal of attention is focused on national affairs, Washington City Paper maintains a relentless emphasis on local Washington. City Paper serves as the definitive local guide to cultural and civic life in the District...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1400 I St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
  • Phone: (202) 332-2100