The self-pronounced hick Willie Stark (Sean Penn) never imagined himself in politics. And he certainly never imagined himself the voice of the powerless. But when successful politician Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) asks the humble, hard-working Stark to throw his hat into the upcoming governor’s race, Stark agrees. Stark’s platform is simple: fair and equal opportunity for the Louisiana poor in a state that is becoming dominated by big business.
The campaign starts out slowly. Stark’s popular support is nearly nonexistence, and his chances of winning are lower still. But when Stark learns that he has been set up to split the “hick vote” and allow a big-wig hotshot to slip into the governor’s office, he takes matters into his own hands, dumping Duffy (quite literally) and setting out across Louisiana to preach his fire-and-brimstone message to anyone who’ll listen. The vote-splitting scandal soon hits the papers and works to his advantage. He wins the election by the largest margin in state history.
Once he steps into the governor’s mansion however, Stark becomes bombarded by furious politicians dead set on getting him out of office. By winning the election, he has unofficially declared war on the rich, promising millions to the poor while promising to take millions from the rich.
To keep those who threaten his power off his back, Stark begins down a dangerously crooked path, a place he promised his people he would never sink. Blackmail, bribes, extortion, you name it, Stark begins to become involved in it. He does whatever it takes to fend off those who want him out.
However, the plan backfires. His opponents soon discover Stark’s dirty tactics and begin to cry for an impeachment. Stark continues to fight them, sinking lower and lower into a pit of self-depravity.
One of Stark’s most vocal opponents, Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), appears in a newspaper article supporting the governor’s impeachment. Eager to shut him up, Stark appoints journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law) to discredit the judge. The only problem is that Judge Irwin is Burden’s surrogate father. Torn between his boss’ wishes and his father’s reputation, Burden is forced to take a step back and reevaluate not only his own past but also a man in Stark who has clearly been overtaken by corruption and greed.
The downfall of Willie Stark was readily made into a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Robert Penn Warren and is considered a modern classic by many intellectuals. The movie version of the book, however, is no classic.
All the King’s Men is a confusing, muddy disappointment that attempts to delve into too many subplots. Its script is a disaster, and it is difficult to believe such a brilliant cast could be put to worse use.
Sean Penn is perhaps the only shining light in an otherwise pitch-black film, and it’s a dull light at that. While his evangelistic arm-waving and maniacal, passionate hollering is impressive, he is neither humble enough in the beginning nor menacing enough at the end. It’s a good performance, and he will probably receive a little Oscar buzz, but he cannot even begin to make up for this Cajun calamity.
The movie spends way too much time focusing on petty little subplots (most notably Jack Burden’s adolescent love affair with Kate Winslet’s character) to display the real purpose of the movie. We see none of Stark’s downfall, only the result. The movie infers that Stark in essence turned on a dime from an innocent, small-town guy to a bayou version of Machiavelli. And frequent flashbacks further confuse the viewers, who are already trying to sift through the dizzying subplots.
The performances, aside from Penn’s, are downright horrendous. Half the characters figure out a half-decent southern accent, while the other half are laughable as they try in vain to add an embellished drawl to every other syllable. Sir Anthony Hopkins sounds like he’s from New Orleans by way of the British Isles. The Scottish actor doesn’t even attempt a southern accent, and Mark Ruffalo jumps back and forth from a southern twang to his native Cheesehead-speak. It is an altogether ridiculous attempt at mastering the local dialect.
After the dust settles and moviegoers head for the exits, they will struggle to figure out what to take from the movie. It is a political drama minus the dramatic part. It profiles the fall of a popular politician without explaining how the guy first slipped. And the star-studded cast falls flat on its ugly face. All the King’s Men simply rambles on for two and half hours desperate to make a major statement, failing spectacularly in its attempt. Not even a cleverly shot, richly symbolic final scene can put this cluttered mess back together again. 1 star.