The release of All the King’s Men is the kick-off to awards season. When the weather cools and the leaves start to turn the blockbusters and popcorn movies that clogged up the multiplexes in the summer make way for more serious-minded movies, the kind of movies that win awards.
All the King’s Men is perfect Oscar-bait. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, which was turned into Oscar’s Best Picture of 1949. The new version features a cast with no less than a dozen Oscar nominations and a few wins between them. That’s quite a pedigree. Too bad the movie doesn’t live up to its legacy.
Sean Penn plays Willie Stark, loosely based on Louisiana governor Huey P. Long. When we meet Willie he is a hick-town county treasurer who risks his job to fight corruption at Town Hall. When he reveals that a construction firm used bribery to land a contract to build a school, a school with a faulty fire escape that collapsed, killing three children, he becomes something of a folk hero. When he is approached to run for governor, he accepts, running on a “man of the people” platform that wins him favor with a large constituency that had never been considered before—rural farmers and landowners. His fiery speeches and populist politics win him the election, but his flamboyant style earns him many enemies in high places. It soon becomes clear that Willie is as corrupt and power hungry as the men he replaced.
The first hint that All the King’s Men is being positioned as an important movie with a capital “I” is the overwrought score by James Horner. This is big, orchestral film music in which violins swell as if heralding the second coming. It seems out of place, considering much of the film takes place in rural Louisiana. Perhaps a score that utilized Cajun and blues music might have been more appropriate. A few accordions, an old washboard and a swampy guitar would have created a sense of place and atmosphere that booming violins cannot.
But the music isn’t the only thing that seems overwrought. Sean Penn is a fine actor, but here he is so over-the-top it is as if he is acting in a different movie than the rest of the cast. He gives us Willie Stark in a vein-popping, arm-waving performance that suggests that maybe he should lay-off the Red Bull.
Next to his eye-popping performance the rest of the cast kind of disappears. Jude Law is serviceable as Stark’s right-hand man; Anthony Hopkins turns in one of his patented old codger performances, but Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo are both wasted in small roles that require little from either of them.
It pains me to thrash All the King’s Men because I think it is a movie that aspired to greatness, that tried to have something important to say, and Hollywood could really use more movies that aim high. But in the end All the King’s Men’s lofty aspirations simply make its failure so much more acute.