Adapted from a Pulitzer-winning novel that’s already inspired one 1949 Academy Award-winning flick; crammed with scenery-chewing turns, heavy-handed visual metaphors, overloaded with booming, ominous music... All The King’s Men couldn’t be a more blatant Oscar whore if they handed out ‘For Your Consideration’ flyers with every ticket. But in a just universe, it won’t win anything much. Despite its gold-plated pedigree, All The King’s Men is sunk by leaden excess – too many flashbacks, too much of James Horner’s EastEnders drumroll-style score, too much bleached-out wannabe black-and-white chic... Too much of everything, but little restraint.
Worst of all, Schindler’s List writer-turned-director Steven Zaillian doesn’t know when to cut; when words can be powered down for images to do the work. The result is a tiring, talky two hours. Zaillian seems terrified of trusting the audience to work things out for themselves. Law’s voiceover is ever-present, carefully explaining how you should be thinking, feeling, even reacting. By the halfway mark, most sane people will be yearning for a ‘mute’ button.
To add to the frustration, some scenes are gagging for subtitles. Anthony Hopkins (the best thing here, despite popping up for just three underplayed scenes) wisely sticks with his ordinary tones, but most of the others are proudly clutching diplomas from the Dick Van Dyke Academy Of Rubbish Accents. Inflections are all over the place: while Kate Winslet is note-perfect as a Southern belle, Gandolfini is unintelligible as political fixer Tiny.
Completely off the scale, though, is Penn. As he bellows out rabble-rousing speeches in a molasses-thick drawl, it’s possible to determine around one word in four. He has the boozy, lazy-eyed charisma down pat, but a better director would have worked on the business of understanding what the hell he’s on about. Then again, Zaillian doesn’t seem that interested in Penn as Stark. The film, like Robert Penn Warren’s book, concentrates on Burden’s ethical dilemma. Trouble is, Law’s reedy rich boy is nowhere near as interesting, and Zaillian has seriously fumbled by not following Robert Rossen’s 1949 lead and zooming in on Stark’s fall from grace. As a result, his politico’s transition from honest Joe to slippery snake mostly takes place offscreen.
Out of seven noms, Rossen’s flick bagged Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Actor (for Broderick Crawford’s Stark). Zaillian’s version might get some token recognition for Penn’s hamming, but despite its blatant in-built expectations, that’s the only nod it deserves come Oscar night.
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A bloated, relatively thrill-free thriller more concerned with courting Oscars than crafting a coherent film. Sometimes, more is less.