All the King's Men

SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL Penn works his constituency.
SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL Penn works his constituency.

Time Out says

Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 Pulitzer-winning book is justifiably lauded as the great American novel on modern politics, and considering our current corrupt state of affairs, a fresh adaptation seemed inevitable. A dual narrative of selling out, the ballad of fat-cat governor Willie Stark (Penn) and muckraker-turned-toady Jack Burden (Law) intertwines their fates into one double-helix descent. And while most movies derived from major literary works make alterations, Steven Zaillian (A Civil Action) perpetrates a boo-boo of epic proportions: He’s put the wrong rise-and-fall up front.

Stark is a vital literary creation, exemplifying how best intentions can be swayed by the siren song of ego, power and the all-mighty kickback. If a ham like Broderick Crawford could do wonders with the role in the 1949 version, imagine what a stellar actor like Penn might accomplish. Yet Zaillian reduces Stark to a mere sketch—he goes from defender of the people to demagogue in three cuts!—and turns the meatier character into a flailing bit player. It’s a disastrous move:Burden may be the narrator, but his loss of innocence carries less weight, and Law’s decent performance isn’t enough to carry the film, or even stop Chris Rock from further ribbing him.

The questionable calls continue: James Horner’s this-goes-to-11 score transforms minor dramatic turns into high-volume Wagnerian arias, key lines (“Time brings all things to light”) become pious gospel readings, and metaphors are delivered with demolition-derby subtlety. All the wrong choices plague All the King’s Men; no matter how hard it tries, the film can’t put the story’s shattered profundity back together again. (Opens Fri; Click here for venues.) — David Fear



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