'All The Kings Men' Too Self-Important

handout photo provided by Columbia Pictures, actor Sean Penn portrays an idealistic southern politician, "Boss" Willie Stark in a scene from the film, "All The Kings Men." (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures, Kerry Hayes)
AP/Columbia Pictures, Kerry Hayes
Everyone involved with "All the King's Men" must have felt justified by the compulsion to create an important film, one that's pulsating with relevance, a film that has something to say.

Writer-director Steven Zaillian has amassed an esteemed cast (Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Kate Winslet) to remake this best-picture Oscar winner, based on Robert Penn Warren's 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. James Carville helped shepherd it to the screen and serves as an executive producer, which theoretically should add to the authenticity.

But instead of being important, "All the King's Men" is merely self-important — and pretentious and bombastic, but ultimately hollow. (James Horner's overwrought score distractingly smothers several scenes that might have had enough innate drama to stand on their own.)

Penn, starring as the Huey Long figure who goes from small-town hick to corrupt politico, screams and flails and gesticulates wildly as if trying to do his best Joe Cocker impression. Rather than being powerful, it too often comes off as inadvertently funny.

The British actors, meanwhile, affect Louisiana accents with varying degrees of success. Then again, everyone (except Kathy Baker as a boozy socialite) feels awkwardly out of place — especially James Gandolfini as a thug who looks and sounds a lot like Tony Soprano.

Part of the allure should have been found in watching Penn take on a role that's larger than life, one that's far removed from the silently seething intensity for which he's best known. Instead, his Willie Stark is more like a cartoon character — a caricature of a Southerner playing up his simple roots for mass appeal.

Stark may have started out with honorable intentions on his way to his doomed governorship. (Zaillian makes striking use of the actual state Capitol in Baton Rouge during the film's climax; the scene is one of several examples of virtuoso camerawork, beautiful but self-conscious.)

He goes from parish treasurer to unlikely gubernatorial candidate after some political operatives (Gandolfini and Patricia Clarkson) talk him into running. But once he realizes he's being manipulated, that he's just a pawn being used to split the hick vote, he goes off message and finds his own voice, speaking to groups of poor folks like himself about the need for roads and bridges and schools.

This sequence, in which Stark stumps from stages to swamps across the state, should have been thrilling but instead just feels rushed. All of a sudden he knows exactly what to say, and all of a sudden the people show up to listen. (Zaillian also moved the setting from the Depression to the 1950s to make it seem more current; he didn't need to.)

Law stars as Jack Burden, the journalist who follows Stark on his campaign tour then goes to work for him once Stark wins in a landslide. And as narrator, Law provides one of the film's few sources of subtlety.

But he's also forced to serve as the central figure in a couple of subplots that drain the film of its momentum. In one, Stark asks Jack to dig up some dirt on a longtime judge (Hopkins, dignified as always) who refuses to be shaken down. In another, Jack must revisit a long-lost love from his pampered youth (Winslet) and talk her troubled brother (Mark Ruffalo) into helping launch Stark's pet project, a new hospital to serve the poor.

In the midst of all this scheming, Stark finds time to indulge his newfound tastes in liquor and exotic women, which he's acquired as quickly as flipping on a light switch.

How did he make this giant leap? Where did these Machiavellian tendencies come from? Whether they'd been festering inside him all along or simply developed as he ascended to the throne, it's unclear.

And if "All the King's Men" is intended as a cautionary tale about the rise and fall of a great man, having a firm grasp of where he started from is crucial to caring about where he ended up.