It's almost always a bad idea to remake a classic movie. In the case of "All the King's Men," it's a doubly bad idea since Broderick Crawford's Oscar-winning performance in the 1949 version is indelible. As the corrupt, populist Louisiana governor Willie Stark, Crawford was such a swaggering behemoth that it would take Godzilla to upstage him.
Sean Penn isn't quite that. In writer-director Steve Zaillian's adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's great 1946 novel, Penn is given very little to do, after the first half hour or so, except connive and exhort and flail his arms. If you were to plot his character arc on a graph, it would mostly resemble a flat line.
Zaillian uses a noirish, hard light palette to depict Louisiana in a drama he has transposed, without much advantage, from the Depression '30s to the '50s. The look is tough on the eyes. Stark, who was essentially Warren's stand-in for Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long, may have seen the world in terms of black and white, but there's no reason why we have to.
The best parts of the movie come early, when we first see Willie learning the political ropes. A Baton Rouge operator, Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini doing his level best not to sound like Tony Soprano), pegs Willie to run for governor because, unbeknownst to him, Tiny wants to split the redneck vote and reelect the incumbent. The scene where Willie intuits how he is being used, is very fine; we're watching the birth pangs of his considerable political smarts.
But then Zaillian shows us a montage of Willie rallying the poor with his own authentic voice. The trouble is, the "hicks" he appeals to are never more than faces in the crowd, and so the effect is unintentionally condescending. If we are to truly experience the downfall of a man who once claimed to be on the side of the working poor, shouldn't they have more personality than a herd of cattle?
As overwrought as Penn is, at least there's a sordid pleasure in observing his attempt to turn himself into a beer-bellied cracker. But as Willie's counterpart Jack Burden, the highborn newspaperman who becomes his right-hand man, Jude Law takes up far more screen time to far less effect. Law works a lot because he is skillful and because his patrician handsomeness is supposed to confer quality on a production. (It's the position that David Niven used to occupy.) But he's not a very exciting actor.
We never see Jack's gravitation to the dark side – i.e. Willie's side. He just seems like a slumming newspaperman who wants to spice things up for himself. Since Willie represents the populist ascendancy in the South, Jack's involvement with him ought to signal a seismic shift in the zeitgeist.
Likewise, when Willie orders Jack to dig up dirt on Jack's godfather, Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), who is attempting to impeach Willie, Jack barely registers discomfort. Or glee, for that matter. The blahness of Law's performance is in such contrast to Penn's banshee contortions that the movie seems to split in two whenever they are on screen together. The other actors, including Patricia Clarkson, Kate Winslet, and Mark Ruffalo, can't do much to seal the crack.
The prime mover in getting this film remade was James Carville, who is listed as co-executive producer. This might lead you to believe that "All the King's Men" is politically relevant for this election season, but it's no more or less so than, say, "Julius Caesar," and the orations are a lot windier. The only emotional resonance this film had for me was unintended: As one of the last films shot in New Orleans before Katrina, it's an unwitting elegy for a city and a state of mind. Grade: C
• Rated PG-13 for intense violence, sexual content, and partial nudity.