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September 11, 2006
All the King's Missteps

To me, the timing right about now is perfect for another adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men”. Steven Zaillian’s film seemingly had the perfect cast to pull this off. This makes it such a shame to see the film miss on so many levels.

First and foremost, the film doesn’t stay focused. While the book is told by Jack Borden, it is Willy Stark who people think of when they think of this story as he is by far the more interesting character. And it is his scenes that are actually the compelling parts in this film. He admittedly serves as the catalyst for other actions in the film yet the narrative ends up being overambitious, going off on tangents related to Borden's character where connections to the overall narrative are not well done. This may very well work on the page and it’s probably true to what a character such as Borden would be experiencing. But it nevertheless is illconceived, becoming distracting and preventing of a truly satisfying film experience. Keeping Willy Stark at the forefront of this film would have helped immensely.

Sean Penn’s take on the famous character is already extremely divisive. Some think he’s great. Others think he’s awful. I’ll say this for him – he always shows his passion. And while he does slip over-the-top in this film (often), Willy Stark is not a subtle character and he clearly tries to convey the man’s feelings and motivations. (On a completely shallow note, his hairstyle in the movie was awful).

Jude Law, though I consistently love him in supporting roles, is simply not a very compelling leading man. His performance here is too understated to really carry the film, especially opposite Penn’s scenery-chewing. The character also remains too vague for the good of the film, especially as he is playing the protagonist.

The rest of the cast ranges from ‘good but wasted’ (Clarkson, who seems incapable of being less than good) to ‘stock’ (Hopkins) to underdeveloped (Ruffalo, Winslet) to dreadful (Gandolfini).

It’s clear that this was a labour of love for Zaillian. And it’s a shame to see it so maligned. But it’s not as though he is innocent of creating this film’s problems.

The script is a mixed bag. In addition to the aforementioned tangent problem, while parts of the film are exceedingly well-written, others have very awkward dialogue. Further to this, the pivotal characters of Winslet and Ruffalo are essentially completely absent for the film’s first half and cannot be well developed enough in the screentime they have before they become extremely important towards the film’s climax.

The director actually shows a respectable amount of visual flare. Despite Penn’s overselling many of his speeches, they are exquisitely filmed and consistently involving. The capturing of Stark’s imagination on many levels is also superbly done (if this is completely absent for the larger Borden character). Further, rural Louisiana seems to become a character in the film during Stark’s run for Governor. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman must be congratulated on yet another relatively successful stateside accomplishment.

Alas, there are also ill-conceived scenes, notably a flashback to Winslet, Ruffalo and Law on a beach (which is repeated in the film way too many times). In other instances, hints that could theoretically be subtle (and work really well) instead become all-too-obvious foreshadowing.

This is not crap. It is extremely ambitious and striving for far too much to be considered crap. It’s ultimately unsuccessful on most levels it’s reaching for. But it ought not to be thoroughly dismissed. There are moments when the viewer can see the greatness of ‘what could have been’. And the film is never boring.

On a final note, James Horner’s score is inappropriate to the tone of the film and way too loud. Alas, I’d also call it the film’s best chance at a nomination. Go figure?


Sound analysis.

I think a lot of people will be quick to dump all over this film, and maybe it deserves it. But I still found a lot of beautiful steps forward for Zaillian as a director and as a writer. And no matter how drawn out and "hit-the-audience-over-the-head" that last scene with the blood is, I thought it was exquisite.

On a side note, Stark's assassination was filmed just 30 feet from where Long was killed.

"Jude Law, though I consistently love him in supporting roles, is simply not a very compelling leading man."

Wait until you see "Breaking and Entering" my friend. ;)

I really agree with the comment on the blood, Kris. I thought that was a brilliant shot, though it would've been better in colour.

I'll be seeing Breaking and Entering soon enough. I certainly hope to be in agreement with you.

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