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Sean Penn as Willie Stark
Jude Law as Jack Burden
Anthony Hopkins as Judge Irwin
Kate Winslet as Anne Stanton
Mark Ruffalo as Adam Stanton
Patricia Clarkson as Sadie Burke
James Gandolfini as Tiny Duffy
Jackie Earle Haley as Sugar Boy
Kathy Baker as Mrs. Burden
Willie Stark (Sean Penn) is the worst kind of populist, the kind who believes the ends always justify the means. Plucked from the middle-of-nowhere Louisiana by the political machine, Willie soon turns the machine's own politics against itself, using his firebrand style to garner the popular support he needs to take over the state government regardless of the cost to himself or anyone around him.
The newest adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's seminal political novel, "All the King's Men" (based in turn, more or less, on the real life of Huey Long) hosts some fine performances but a lack of focus (particularly in the second half) and a heavy hand from writer-director Steven Zaillian ("A Civil Action") keep it from reaching it's full potential.
As in the book, the story of Willie Stark is told through the eyes of Jack Burden (Jude Law) a reporter from the upper crust that prefers to spend his time reporting on, and eventually hanging around, the lower end of the class system. He's a perfect door for Stark, giving him an in to the people who run things.
It all starts off so well. Willie has generally good intentions, but eventually falls for his own rhetoric when he successfully runs for Governor on a reform platform, resorting to blackmail and bribery to force his reforms through. The film is much the same; despite a solid beginning, introducing Willie and the beginning of his downfall, it increasingly wanders off course as it goes along, focusing on Jack and his family history.
Jack's father left when he was a boy and he ended up being raised by family friend Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), with his best friends Anne (Kate Winslet) and Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo), the children of the states most popular governor. There is an indelible link between the wealthy and politics, one of the more subtle implications of the film and one of the few times it is actually subtle. It seems like there's supposed to be a parallel between Jack's past and present, gradually becoming more and more intertwined as Willie pressures Irwin to stop a crusade to have him impeached.
The problem is there's nothing gradual about it. When the focus switches to Jack's dysfunctional family, Willie – ostensibly the focus of the film – abruptly drops off the face of the earth to make room for Jack's problems with the past, then just as abruptly reappears. Winslet and Ruffalo, the catalysts for the climax and major parts of Jack's story, don't even appear until after the halfway mark.
Zaillian is a gifted writer and not a half bad director, but "All the King's Men" is far too heavy-handed and muddled to achieve the sort of significance and weight it seems to be aiming for. A solid cast sells the material the best they can but can't hide its weaknesses. Willie Stark is the kind of scenery-chewing role Penn does well and he's his usual over-the-top self here. Law is much better, trying and failing to hide Jack's self-loathing, but most of the cast, like Penn and Hopkins, are repeating performances they've perfected elsewhere.
There's a good movie in there – in fact it we've seen it before, in 1949 – but Zaillian's muddied storytelling and lack of focus hides it beyond recall. It's Oscar bait, pure and simple, of the kind Hollywood loves, and it's just as heavy-handed as that sounds. What a waste.