An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis 

            “All the King’s Men” is both compelling and flawed.  It would be hard not to be intrigued by any version of Robert Penn Warren’s classic story of the brush salesman turned Louisiana governor, and hard not to be held by Sean Penn’s interpretation of a demagogue.  But director Steven Zaillian lets this good material slip right through his hands. Willie Stark (Sean Penn) is the brush salesman with a penchant for connecting with people; Jack Burden (Jude Law) is a renegade New Orleans aristocrat turned morose news reporter who signs on as Stark’s Karl Rove. 
            Stark’s rage is crystallized by a bidding scandal for a new school.  When the politicians accept a high bidder who uses second rate building materials, a fire escape collapses and a student is killed.  The demagogue is born when Jack pushes Willie to stop holding himself back.  No longer will he be “the sacrificial sap” of the power boys; he will be the “proud redneck hick” who fights to give the people what he knows they really own:  Louisiana’s gas and oil.  He declares a defense of the poor and a war on the rich.  Now the populist is born, “The power is in the hands of the powerless, and they gave it to me.”

            In between Willie’s ranting speeches, we meet his step-father, Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), the judge’s step-children, Anne (Kate Winslet) and Adam (Mark Ruffalo), and his girl friend Sadie (Patricia Clarkson).  Stir this mix and you end up with an old fashioned southern fried scandal, the beginnings of a melodrama, and the decline of both Willie and the movie.  Why?

            For one thing, there is no real sense of place.  There is atmosphere – smoke filled rooms, the courthouse, the news room.  But they might as well be in Chicago, St. Louis, or any other town of the time.  This is New Orleans, and it should have been a major character in the movie. 

            For another, some very fine actors are miscast.  As good as they may be individually, they give no sense whatsoever of the south.  They miss entirely the feel of southern aristocracy on the one hand, or blue collar Louisiana on the other.  And, unfortunately, Sean Penn – even at his most riveting – is just not Huey Long, or even Willie Stark for that matter.  We are hard pressed to understand how he could win the people of his state.  And then there’s the music.  Too loud from beginning to end, it is used as a series of exclamation points whenever the composer wants to emphasize a scene.   

            We are left then, with the thoughts of the novelist himself.  “Privilege means nothing to those who have it,” Sadie snaps.  Or from Jack:  “Something is bothering me like an off stage noise…you hear it, but not well enough to get the meaning.”  And all of this is obliterated by the final scene, a melodramatic imagining that is a wincing embarrassment.     

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