From the first scene of All the King’s Men (Columbia Pictures), you know you’re in for a slog: Jude Law lies in bed, staring at a slow-moving ceiling fan, as we hear his Louisiana drawl on the soundtrack. Beware the literary adaptation—especially the Southern literary adaptation, with ceiling fans—that begins with a voice-over. Once you’ve started down that road, it’s hard not to end up with a film as ponderous and turgid as a book report. This version of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, written and directed by Steven Zaillian, is crammed with big-name stars and generously slathered with a score by James (Titanic) Horner. But it feels so fussed over, so concerned with mood and texture and setting, that the story gets bogged down in a tangle of Spanish moss.
Penn Warren’s novel, and the Oscar-winning 1949 film based on it, never explicitly named the Southern state they took place in, but this version—executive-produced by Louisianan James Carville—locates the action in Louisiana, opening on a shot of the state seal on the floor of the Capitol building. The timing of this remake, not to mention the participation of Carville, had my mind racing to find parallels with current events. Was the subplot about dangerously shoddy public construction meant as a Katrina reference? Was Willie Stark supposed to remind us of Clinton (a charismatic, skirt-chasing populist) or Bush (a petty tyrant, sheltered from the truth by his team of handlers)? Maybe it’s pointless to ask, in this age of remakes, what it is about a particular work of art that demands or deserves revisiting: Old movies and TV shows are remade simply because they’re there, like great cultural rainforests waiting to be plundered. But this movie sets up its audience, dangling just enough similarities with the present day to seem vaguely smart, but never thinking through what those similarities might mean.
All the King’s Men tells the story of a journalist, Jack Burden (Jude Law), who becomes a fixer for a dark-horse gubernatorial candidate, a self-taught hick named Willie Stark (Sean Penn). The plot hinges on our accepting the fact that, during the campaign, Stark discovers his political voice and grows into a great orator, but Penn’s studied accent and strangely contorted diction sound more like someone campaigning for an Oscar than a governorship. After he’s elected, Stark grows ever more corrupt and paranoid, and Jack finds himself forced, for reasons I won’t reveal here, to betray everyone he loves: his stepfather (Anthony Hopkins), his best friend (Mark Ruffalo), and his true love (Kate Winslet). Meanwhile, Burden’s fellow political operatives, Sadie Burke and Tiny Duffy (Patricia Clarkson and James Gandolfini) hustle behind the scenes to keep Stark outfitted in his emperor’s new clothes.
With a cast like that, who can go wrong? Zaillian, best known as a screenwriter (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) finds a way: He manages to make Ruffalo dull, Winslet plain, and Clarkson shrill. Jude Law, who rules when he’s cast as a soulless pretty boy (Oscar Wilde’s beloved in Wilde, a corporate shill in I [Heart] Huckabees), flounders as the tortured conscience at the center of this moral swamp. But he does struggle nobly with that tricky New Orleans accent. Gandolfini’s glowering, cigarette-chomping Duffy is risibly evocative of his Tony Soprano—although, as Jesse Sheidlower pointed out in Slatelast year, some variants of New Orleans-speak do sound almost like Brooklynese. Hopkins is indestructibly and elegantly Hopkins, serving up every actor who crosses his path with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
But it’s Zaillian’s overdirection that cooks this whole mess into a flavorless gumbo. He never shows you something just once when he could show it twice and never leaves a point unhammered home. A shot toward the end of the movie, having to do with that Louisiana state seal, at first serves as a nice visual pun for the harm wrought by Stark’s rotten administration. Then it appears again, and you realize it was actually kind of an obvious symbol. By the third variation, you’re embarrassed for having ever tolerated the image in the first place. Zaillian had everything going for him: fabulous actors, a rollicking potboiler of a story, and even a tenuous allegory for events of the present day. But this All the King’s Men is a textbook example of not knowing when to leave well enough alone.