Ah, the prestige picture. Put together for their pedigree and the chance at Oscar glory. Amazing ensemble casts of some of the greatest actors of today from a highly respected source material with a talented behind the scenes talent.
And then it’s gone. What happened? There was so much going for it. Met with constant release delays and, what I’m assuming was a laborious process of post-production, we have the 2006 film All the King’s Men, based on the Robert Penn Warren novel, written and directed by Steven Zaillian (A Civil Action, Searching for Bobby Fischer). An overbearing, dragged out, and ultimately dull would be Oscar hopeful that never gets itself off the ground and ultimately winds up a huge disappointment.
An amazing all star cast shows up for work in this film that follows fictional Louisiana governor Willie Stark (played to the hilt by Sean Penn) as he navigates political corruption and potential impeachment. This is all seen through the eyes of idealistic, intrepid reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law, saddled with an accent he just doesn’t have a handle on) who ends up working for Stark and must find dirt on an influential judge (Anthony Hopkins). The problem being that this man also happened to be a father figure to dear old Jack in his youth. In fact, this is something that constantly keeps getting pushed on Jack as aspects of his past continue to collide with Stark’s gubernatorial reach. Mark Ruffalo and Kate Winslet play childhood friends of Jack Burden’s who get drawn into Stark’s realm of personal corruption.
As you can see, an amazing cast is put together in this movie and, in most other cases this would be reason enough to make this a movie to look out for. Unfortunately, absolutely no one brings their A game to their roles, and even if they did, they are all hampered by accents ranging from passable to outright horrendous. Jude Law’s fluctuating rich, upper crust southern drawl is absolutely painful to the ears, making the decision to have him be the narrator even more egregious. Sean Penn turns in a hammy piece of overacting. Penn is a usually brilliant actor but here he is embarrassingly inept and broad in his characterization of Willie Stark. A constantly moving, hammy performance that recalls the Sean Penn of I Am Sam rather than the Penn of Milk. It almost became a struggle to not turn the movie off it becomes such a bear to watch.
James Gandolfini plays one of Stark’s advisors and its just another actor struggling with no life preserver with his heavy Jersey Tony Soprano voice bursting through a southern accent. Mark Ruffalo isn’t given much to do except look disturbed at points and sit next to Jude Law during some inexplicably placed flashbacks. Jackie Earle Haley shows up from time to time with a handgun in hand as Stark’s bodyguard and you’re constantly left wondering what such a talented actor is doing just being left to look threating in the background and randomly thrown together cutaways. Anthony Hopkins acquits himself nicely but he merely shows up and doesn’t embarrass himself like most others. Actually, I’d put Kate Winslet and Patricia Clarkson in that same category in the movie. Talented actors and trying their best, but they’ve done infinitely better work with infinitely better material.
The themes of the movie about the corruption of idealism and the story of a charismatic southern leader getting elected on the backs of the poor, lower class, uneducated voters is as timely as ever but the film never strives to make anything of it. Zaillian slaps together some heavy handed religious imagery all over the movie with crosses showing up at any moment where he feels it’s appropriate trying to draw parallels to the current day movement of the religious right but none of it ever feels tied together.
And that’s one aspect that represents the great problem of the movie. It’s just overbearing. Everything from the performances that just don’t work and are far too broad to the attempted symbolism and imagery and slow, panning camera movements to even the score itself. Every aspect of the movie screams out that it’s a movie. Rather than being lost in the story, the viewer becomes very aware that Sean Penn is just acting like there’s no tomorrow up there. There’s no involvement whatsoever. During scenes of Stark’s raving speeches against the upper class citizens of the city, the music builds and builds until it reaches an overbearing crescendo over a scene which has no need for it. The score, like most every other aspect of the movie, dulls the senses and pulls the viewer completely out of any reality that the film may have been trying to build. Where subtlety would be best, Zaillian comes at it with a sledgehammer.
A wasted cast, overbearing direction, a dull, loaded script with a lot to say but no idea how to get it across to the audience, no wonder it never resurfaced in Oscar talks once it was actually seen. There was a great deal of potential in front of and behind the camera but none of it was utilized.
The movie screams through its pores to honor it with something and it never strives to show how it deserves it. Penn aches with an immense amount of character and feeling as Willie Stark but there’s never a real human character there. It’s just an enormous amount of actor tics and traits to form a performance more than anything else, and an aggravating one at that.
The great failing lies at Zaillian’s feat at the end of it all. He was given an immense source novel and a cast to die for and turned in a turgid, lifeless affair that feels as if it so desperately needs to be liked. Actually, not too far from most actual politicians come to think of it.
On a side note, this novel has been adapted into a film before in 1949. It won three Oscars for Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, and Best Picture.