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click to enlarge Sean Penn even takes his karaoke seriously.
  • Sean Penn even takes his karaoke seriously.

*All the King's Men (PG-13)

Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Cranking out movies in the immediate wake of a successful book is no modern development. All the King's Men won a Pulitzer in 1947, and the hit movie remake came out two years later. And by "hit," I'm talking about a virtual plundering of the Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Broderick Crawford) and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge).

Based loosely on the story of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, All the King's Men follows the rise of Willie Stark, a populist rabble-rouser who galvanizes the vote among the working class by promising them the world. When he gets into office, he runs wild with women, taxes the rich and goes head-to-head with the oil and electric companies, who conspire to get rid of him by having the well-regarded Judge Irwin call for his impeachment.

We see everything through the eyes of reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law), as he is eventually pulled into Stark's orbit as his personal assistant, even though he happens to be a friend of the judge.

While the 2006 adaptation of this classic political yarn boasts some commendable performances, the chances of it joining its cinematic predecessor as Best Picture seem about as likely as a Green Party president. It isn't for lack of trying: This flick is nothing if not ambitious, centered around Sean Penn's thundering, wallpaper-peeling performance as Stark. But to paraphrase a quote uttered by Burden: Something about it bothered me, like an unseen offstage noise.

For one thing, every time Stark makes a speech and that's like every 15 minutes, once things get going the music comes in halfway through and rises with the intensity of the oration, climaxing with Penn flailing his arms, the rabble thoroughly roused. It's a strong contrast to Law's quiet cynicism these two seem about as comfortable in the same film together as George W. Bush would be at a cocktail party thrown by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Each approach is impressive on its own terms, but the combination makes for some bumpy dynamics and clumsy pacing. Ultimately, the dynamic between Stark and Burden comes off like a battle waged not so much to advance the story as to flag the attention of the Oscar folks.

The supporting characters also seem to be awash in the wave of incongruity. The role of Stark's secretary, Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson), seems to have been downsized from the '49 model, and Kate Winslet playing Anne Stanton, Burden's former love interest who gets tangled up with the governor is as diaphanous a presence as the silk curtain director Steven Zaillian insists on filming her through during one pivotal scene with Law. As Tiny Duffy, Stark's lieutenant governor, James Gandolfini is impressive, but his character's limits are best summed up by Stark when he says, "Someone has to be lieutenant governor."

Another huge presence is Anthony Hopkins, who manages to exude both kindliness and a serious don't-fuck-with-me vibe as Judge Irwin. He plays the film's other main catalyst, as both a father figure to Burden and the only person with the nads to stand up to Stark.

All the King's Men is worth seeing on the strength of its powerful, vivid cinematography and its excellent cast alone. It's just that somewhere between the stirring populist political fable of Stark and the dark internal struggle of Burden, an amazing movie is hanging in the air, elusive and maddeningly just out of reach.

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