Set in the 1950s, the movie is more explicit about its Louisiana setting and Southern flavor and brings up some obvious factors, such as race, which were ignored in the original movie. It also, like the book, spends more time chronicling the views of cynical reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law) than it does on the fascinatingly corrupt politician Willie Stark (Sean Penn) who eventually captures his heart and soul.
And therein lies the film's major -- but not only -- problem. Law (“Closer,” “Cold Mountain”) is not an actor who suggests his character's inner life, and his opaque performance in “All the King's Men” pretty much ensures that any scenes he's in will fall flat dramatically. Penn (“Mystic River,” “Dead Man Walking”), on the other hand, is a huge talent who sometimes misses the point of his role. Broderick Crawford offered up a nuanced and subtle performance as Stark in the first film adaptation, one where one could actually feel his interior warring natures of good versus evil. Penn, however, condescends to his complex character, playing Stark as an obvious phony from his first scene.
It doesn't help that director Steve Zaillian's choppy script drops Stark's family life out of the picture -- one that displayed his initial decent roots -- and makes it too easy for him to advance politically. (He becomes governor his first time out, not after losing once as in the 1949 movie.) Even the film's unnecessary flashbacks, invoking Burden's love affair with a judge's niece (Kate Winslet, who's just adequate in her role), are mishandled, rendering the film cumbersome. Zaillian (“A Civil Action,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer”) wrote the superb script for “Schindler's List,” but here has done such a shoddy job constructing his epic tale that “All The King's Men” falls apart as quickly as it's put together. Starring Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, Kathy Baker, Jackie Earle Haley and Anthony Hopkins. Directed and written by Steve Zaillian. Produced by Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Ken Lemberger and Steve Zaillian. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for an intense sequence of violence, sexual content and partial nudity. Running time: 124 min.