ALL THE KING'S MEN (Steve Zaillian). 120 minutes. Opens Friday (September 22). For venues and times, see Movies, page 105. Rating: NN Rating: NNNNN
There are two problems with this new adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men.
First, writer-director Steve Zaillian has decided to be more faithful to the book than Robert Rossen's 1949 version with Broderick Crawford. This shifts the focus from populist demagogue Willie Stark (Sean Penn) and his rise to the Louisiana governor's mansion to patrician newspaperman-turned-political-fixer Jack Burden (Jude Law). This works in the book, but in movies the guy who does stuff - in this case, champion the rural poor - is the hero, not the guy who watches.
Second, Penn's performance captures the angry, power-hungry demagogue, but there's never a hint of why he would do anything but frighten voters away early on. The anger is never touched by a hint of likeability, and populist politicians need that quality. It was a problem in the original as well, where Crawford was basically a bully.
Zaillian has given the film the burnished look you associate with prestige Hollywood productions, as if each frame had been hand-rubbed to a fine glow, which somehow seems inappropriate to a story about somebody grasping for power.