With arms flailing in the air and a barrel chest jutting out of his pinstriped suits, Sean Penn is in full-on Greatest American Actor mode in All the King’s Men, another big-screen adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Great American Novel. Penn rollicks along as a Louisiana hick crusader for the poor who, once elected governor, is quickly (and happily) sucked into a life of corruption. If writer-director Stephen Zallian wasn’t approaching the material with such formal solemnity, and James Horner’s emphatic score wasn’t underlining every dramatic beat with orchestral force, and co-star Jude Law weren’t so hopelessly miscast as a passive alcoholic journalist who rides Penn’s coattails to glory and crashes in a morass of self-loathing, maybe Penn’s titanic performance wouldn’t be existing in a vacuum. After a while, even Penn’s near-evangelical speeches from the steps of the capitol building can’t propel forward a book-to-film adaptation that never catches dramatic fire. The politics of why the retired judge played by Anthony Hopkins poses a threat to the hick governor doesn’t bear any thematic weight, or reflect on the troubled climate of our own present day administration. It feels like what it is: a melodrama that ultimately hinges on a secret letter, a family secret, and a doomed romance. This is the stuff of soap operas, not serious cinema and certainly not great literature. Amid all this nonsense, a grade-A supporting cast tries to give its all in supporting roles, all under the shadow of Sean Penn’s gregarious bravado. But ultimately, so what if you’re the Greatest American Actor if the house you’re inhabiting is made of cards?
- Steven Zaillian
- Steven Zaillian
- Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Jackie Earle Haley, Kathy Baker, Talia Balsam, Travis Champagne, Frederic Forrest
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