Back in the 1930s, as Huey Long ascended in Louisiana politics, students coined the phrase "the old college try" to describe the best efforts of the home team. Some time ago, writer-director Steven Zaillian gave the old college try to adapting Robert Penn Warren's novel All the King's Men, already an Oscar-winning best picture in 1949. Enlisting Sean Penn to play the Long character, a deep-bench supporting cast, Pawel Edelman (The Pianist) to lushly photograph authentic Southern locations, and James Horner to pen the near-operatic score, Zaillian can't be faulted for not trying.
But it's not for nothing that All the King's Men forfeited last year's awards season humbly to take the field a year later. Zaillian's thoughtful but ultimately unfocused narrative unfolds from the perspective of Jack Burden (Jude Law), a reporter who enters the political fray as an advisor and legman for gubernatorial candidate Willie Stark (Penn). In the early-going, All the King's Men is understated to a fault, with a teetotaling Stark looking into big-wheel politics from the outside. Once Stark enters the fray and begins to succumb to corruption, Zaillian unwisely allows the critique of political machinery to share time with Law's Joseph Cotten-y Burden.
Burden's burden is a romantic weakness for old-moneyed childhood friend Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), who he has unwisely idealized as an unattainable gossamer goddess. Zaillian shoots her through a gauze curtain or backlights her to demonstrate her power over Burden, and yet the script fails to impart the import of the relationship, clarify its doomed nature, or replace Burden's image of her with a finely developed character. Stanton's brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a foil for the political exploitation of Stark and Burden, likewise comes off as more of a plot device than a character.
Zaillian is to be both admired and pitied for his earnestness. The Southern speed at which the film lumbers from one disjointed scene to the next at least allows for the kind of meditations too many Hollywood vehicles lack. Aspiring to a Shakesperean thematic scope, Zaillian ponders what good can come from bad and bad from good. Stark's example advocates boldness in politicians (dramatized in fiery stump speeches for Penn) but laments "the bribe and the threat" as misguided tools of social change. And yet, as the characters choose their sides and examine their consciences, All the King's Men collapses under its own equivocal moral weight.
Along the way, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, and Anthony Hopkins weigh in as political players (only the latter is allowed to make a nuanced impression in a sly power match with Penn). Law brings a sharpness to Burden's sideline ponderings, but it's Penn's show as the grandstanding Stark. A self-described "hick" whose finest hours uphold viewpoints sympathetic to Penn's own political skepticism ("If you don't vote, you don't matter"..."When they come 'round sweet talkin', don't listen"), Stark grows hungrier with each success.
Instead of ironically harnessing the energy of Stark's runaway rise, Zaillian sinks deeper into maudlin introspection (last-gasping with a needlessy showy final tableau). Worse, Stark's all-important turn from scrupulous idealist to ruthless opportunist occurs off-screen, without clear motivation or subtle shading; thus, Zaillian sells short the faceoff of shrewd old guard and scrappy proletariat by looking away just when the twain meet. Stark promises, "Time brings all things to light," but Zaillian's noble failure to showcase Warren's rich source material should have remained in the shadows.