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All The King’s Men (4/10)

by Tony Medley

Sean Penn (Willie Stark) is nothing if not histrionic. Subtle is not in his vocabulary. One would have hoped that rubbing shoulders with Anthony Hopkins (Judge Irwin) would have taught him something about shading. But, no, here we have the “Hey, Mom! Look at me! I’m acting!” Sean Penn. For me, a great actor is one you don’t realize is acting. Hopkins, Russell Crowe, Greg Kinnear, these are guys who appear on the screen and it doesn’t even occur to you that they are acting. But when Penn appears on the screen, you know he’s acting and he wants you to know it, too.

But it’s not just his over-the-top performance that makes this an ordeal. The storytelling is so convoluted you just have to go with the flow and not worry about not really knowing what’s going on. Exacerbating the storytelling, the characters are defined in such a way that it is difficult to keep them straight. Every so often I had to ask my friend, “Who’s that?” when a character would reappear or when a reference would be made to somebody of whom I had heard but who hadn’t resonated well enough for me to remember who he or she was or why they were in the movie. Worse, the accents the characters, except Jude Law (Jack Burden, the narrator of the tale), all effectuate are so heavy that the dialogue is often difficult, if not impossible, to understand.

All these things combine to make this remake of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel something less than a joy to sit through. Stark is loosely based on Huey Long, someone many people thought of as a hero but others saw as a despot. Some thought he had a shot at the Presidency before he was assassinated. Despite his overacting, Penn does a pretty good job of capturing a charismatic, but flawed, politician. Unfortunately, a lot of his dialogue is in speeches he yells at crowds. It gets tiresome after awhile.

The worst part of the film is that it just goes on and on and on. Director-writer Steven Zaillian just doesn’t realize that a good film is a taut, tight, concise film, especially when it is a film that is mostly talk. That puts him right in line with most of the other modern filmmakers, who just can’t seem to cut any scene they write or direct. I’ve got my scissors and am just waiting for the phone to ring.

September 20, 2006