All the King's Men

Sean Penn and Mark Ruffalo in All the King's Men (dir. Steven Zaillian, 2006).

Kate Winslet.

James Gandolfini.

All the King's Men came out in 2006 at about the same time as two other midcentury period pieces, Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia and Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland. All three were flops, I think, and none were received especially well by the critics. The Black Dahlia was a big mess with elements of brilliance, like a lot of De Palma; Hollywoodland was just dull and flat. All the King's Men is more well made than either of them, though it's not great, and I might prefer to rewatch The Black Dahlia before it, as I'm generally more interested in spectacular failures than modest successes.

Much of whatever praise the film has garnered has been for Sean Penn's performance as Willie Stark. It's such an actorly performance, though, that it's almost distracting. You can see the thespian muscles straining in his neck. Jude Law is perfectly serviceable in the thanklessly bland first-person narrator role as the initially principled reporter who slowly gets mired in the growing corruption of Stark's world, and Kate Winslet looks appropriately dismayed to see a ruined piano. Patricia Clarkson and Anthony Hopkins play Patricia Clarkson and Anthony Hopkins. The one real standout in the cast is James Gandolfini as Stark's untrustworthy lieutenant Tiny Duffy. The debased Tiny brims with menace and oozes ineffectuality at the same time: it's a painful, discomforting performance. I also like the way Mark Ruffalo nails the wooden "virtuous doctor" character from so many forties and fifties melodramas.

It's beautifully shot by Pawel Edelman--maybe a little too beautifully. It approaches the excesses of what I think of as the "blue ribbon movie," that is, the big grand production where every leaf trembling in the wind or sunset-soaked cityscape speaks the noble or ignoble condition of aspiring mankind. Think Dead Poets' Society or A River Runs through It. If you watch it on DVD, this is one case where the alternate ending is much better: I suspect it was changed for the theatrical release in order to cut down the running time.

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