"All the King's Men" is possibly the worst film adaptation of a literary novel since "The Great Gatsby." People who watch this confused muddle about a southern politician's rise and fall will wonder how it was possible that the novel of the same title by Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1947. The answer is simple: the writing was strong, and the economical, almost fabulistic plot was absolutely evocative of Huey Long, the real Louisiana politician upon which it was based. As with "The Great Gatsby," Penn Warren's novel was also as much about its narrator as it was about its dubious hero. There were layers of complexities that just don't translate to this film.
But Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson? You look at the stars in this film and you can't help but wonder how it could possibly have failed. Well, it's the screenplay and direction from Steven Zaillian that dooms the picture. Willie Stark (Penn) goes from being a door-to-door salesman to protesting the oil companies' unfair labor practices to winning the governorship faster than any of it can make sense. Though the camera movement itself isn't jerky, the scenes jump so quickly from here to there that the whole thing feels like the work of an amateur using a hand-held camera. We never actually get much of a sense of Stark being governor, and while the Long-style populist rants defined the governor's personality, way too much time is given to Penn's folksy shout-fests and not enough is spent developing the characters or fleshing out the logistics of the plot.
Speaking of which, let's talk about logic for a moment. "All the King's Men" was first brought to the big screen in 1949, earning a Best Actor Oscar for Broderick Crawford and a Best Picture statue for director Robert Rossen, who used action veteran Don Siegel to direct political campaign montages to conserve narrative time. It was a brilliant film that captured the essence of the story that Penn Warren wanted to tell, and so it makes absolutely no sense to me that anyone would attempt a remake of a film that managed to get it right the first time. What's next on the remake schedule? "Casablanca"?
In this version, one minute we're feeling like we're in the middle of a leisurely-but-dark relationship film ala "The Talented Mr. Ripley," while the next minute we're in the car (again) with Stark's bodyguard Sugar Boy (Jackie Earle Haley) feeling something sinister and foreboding. Then there are the almost comical moments when Stark and political boss Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) are onscreen together. I'm not from the South, but if I found Penn's and Gandolfini's performances to be borderline caricatures, I'm guessing that people who are from the South found it REALLY annoying or really hilarious. Neither one of them was convincing as a southerner--especially Gandolfini, who still seemed to sport traces of the New Jersey accent we're accustomed to hearing from him in "The Sopranos."
Zaillian doesn't do nearly enough with Jack Burden (Law), the journalist who narrates the story of Willie Stark, and yet what he does include feels like the same type of shortcut we've been getting throughout the film. Burden likes Anne Stanton (Winslet) and he hangs out with her and her brother, Adam (Ruffalo). Then there's Burden's old family friend, Judge Irwin (Hopkins), who will factor into Burden's actions later in the film as he demonstrates his misplaced loyalty. But while you think you have some sense of what's going on, there's always this nagging feeling that you have no idea. All you know for sure is that Willie Stark was going to be used as a pawn in the gubernatorial race, but then he became his own man and denounced Tiny and those who would use him. Then Tiny's back onboard again, and Sadie Burke (Clarkson) seems ever-present, though we're not sure why. We see Stark rant, but we get no clue as to the power he used and abused while governor, and therefore we aren't nearly as prepared for the film's violent ending as we should have been. My wife likes political movies, but this one bored her to tears. Me too. If I were in a theater, I would have found any number of excuses to go buy more popcorn or use the bathroom. Confusing and dull isn't a good combination.
I never saw this one in SD so I can't make any comparisons, but while the color saturation is more earth-tones than a full, rich four-color picture, the black levels are strong and there's a solid amount of detail. In other words, it looks really good in 1080p Hi Def (1.85:1 aspect ratio). Some of the best scenes are those where you see fields of grain and can pick up just about every blade and seedhead, it's so clear.
Once again, the English PCM 5.1 uncompressed sound is fantastic, with a pure tone and robust bass. Other options are English and French 5.1 Dolby Digital, but I can't imagine why anyone would choose to hear it in any other way than the six-channel option.
Mercifully, there are no extras.
There are some enjoyable moments in "All the King's Men," but not many--certainly not enough to come close to the near-perfection of the 1947 original.