All the King's Men (2006)
Reviewed in September 2006
Director: Steven Zaillian. Cast: Jude Law, Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Jackie Earle Haley, Kathy Baker, Talia Balsam, Thomas McCarthy, Travis Champagne, Kevin Dunn, Frederic Forrest. Screenplay: Steven Zaillian (based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren).

Photo © 2006 Columbia Pictures
By its very example, All the King's Men formulates an even more stinging indictment of Hollywood than Hollywoodland does in two hours of direct address. King's Men plays as a veritable autopsy of itself; to watch the movie is to watch it go wrong, to observe the tempting gleam of the film that might have been grow ever dimmer. James Horner's score is so hammering and colossal from the outset that you can foresee how overstated and mechanical the whole damned beast is going to be. One is tempted, retroactively, to cede even more of the success of Zaillian's previous features—Searching for Bobby Fischer and A Civil Action—to the subtle, rookie-friendly wisdom of the late Conrad Hall. Sadly, in his stead, cinematographer Pawel Edelman inappropriately mimics the same palette of deep black, burnished golds, and scattered patches of white that made The Pianist both elegant and harrowing, but this look is all wrong for New Orleans, and not nearly complex enough to keep pace with the dense, multi-character plot. Not that Zaillian's script has preserved the plot all that well, either—entire subplots, like the fate of Willie Stark's son, are telegraphed and semaphored without ever reaching their destinations. But the real tragedy of All the King's Men is that its entire cast of luminaries, splashed all over the most self-canonizing preview trailer since Cinderella Man, fall so collectively and humiliatingly on their faces. Jude Law trots out his rendition of the cynical bystander as long as he possibly can; James Gandolfini is amateurish and flat, failing despite his physical heft to plausibly intimidate Sean Penn; Penn himself gives great, deranged stump speeches but falls back repeatedly on old tics in all his other scenes; Mark Ruffalo is milky and hesitant; Patricia Clarkson mines her role for bitter comedy as a way to stand apart from Mercedes McCambridge's long shadow, which fully eclipses her anyway. Worst in show, I'm sorry to say, is Kate Winslet, who doesn't seem to know this admittedly unknowable woman at all, who squats under a succession of terrible wigs, who loses a whole monologue beneath a needlessly overlaid voiceover by Jude Law, and who is lensed again and again through butter-colored scrims and in pools of french vanilla. Having failed to learn her David Gale lesson about staying well away from Southern political dramas, Winslet has only this as a silver lining: Gwyneth Paltrow starred in Hush, Halle Berry in Swordfish, Charlize Theron in The Italian Job, and Reese Witherspoon in Just Like Heaven in the same years they all won their Oscars. The Little Children camp may as well start crossing their fingers. Grade: C–

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