' ' Cinema Romantico: All the King's Men

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

All the King's Men

“All the King’s Men” is like a game of chess, so many elaborate pieces designed to fit their specific place. Tragically, however, they are not designed for much more than that. I mean, look at the cast: Penn. Winslet. Hopkins. Law. Ruffalo. Clarkson. If that doesn’t get you riled up, you’re not a cinemaphile. But never have I seen such a great cast so misused. Well, except for Sean Penn. Sort of.

Based on the novel (which I haven't read) and Oscar-winning movie (which I haven't seen) of the same name, Penn portrays down-home Louisiana politician Willie Stark. At first he appears to be a proverbial Man of the People, wailing about the injustices directed toward the state’s many “hicks”, pledging to help build education in the state after a faulty fire escape at a schoolhouse kills several children. It’s these scenes leading up to his landslide election victory as we see Penn in many different venues giving speech after speech that are the fim's best. He dials up the intensity. Does he overact? Probably, but he is not acting badly.

And we think the film will be an engrossing tale of Stark’s rise and fall as he turns to the drink and becomes more and more corrupt.

But we would be wrong for there is also the tale of news reporter Jack Burden (Law). Stark hires Burden after he has quit his newspaper, primarily for his stance in support of Stark. Soon Jack finds himself on a mission to dig up dirt on a rival of Stark's - the problem being this rival is connected to Jack's past.

But nothing in Jack's side-story seemed real. None of the characters seemed to have personality outside of what was needed to further the creaky plot mechanics. This blogger, I believe, has established his overwhelming affection for Kate Winslet’s considerable skill but she needs a character of some sort to play. Here she may as well have had a sign hung around her neck at all times indicating: Long Lost Love. Anthony Hopkins manages to do a little more (despite his seemingly total indifference to attempting a southern accent of any kind) but even he feels like having no reason to exist aside from being around to make Jack feel kinda’ guilty. See, they’re all just chess pieces used to get to the end of the match. That’s all. No feeling. No emotion.

And so when the film decides to check back in with Willie Stark as he descends into the black hole in which all politicians inevitably reside, we don't feel much of anything. His descension has not been gradual, partly because we've been off on Jack's quest for much too long.

If the movie wanted to be a commentary on our current political climate, it needed to spend more time with Stark and less with Jack's drama-less childhood flashbacks. If the movie wanted to be a true character study of Jack and his dilemma (which it seemed to desire), it needed to spend more time creating real people.

If this were a screenwriting class and you were my student and you handed me “All the King’s Men” as your end-of-the-semester project this would be my comment at the top of the first page: Character Generates Plot. Plot Does Not Generate Character.

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