Let loose with a meaty all-American role within a sprawling Pulitzer-winning novel that is still assigned reading in many classrooms -- a story that was filmed once in 1949 and showered with forgotten Oscars -- Penn goes for larger-than-life, wrapping his pinched frown around an unintelligible Louisiana drawl and swinging his arms like an autistic evangelist. The hick-Eraserhead hair may support this impression, encouraging us to place Penn's cracker politician somewhere between his special kid in I Am Sam and his obliviously narcissistic guitarist in Sweet and Lowdown.
When tackling film characters, Penn is most effective at boiling pots with tight lids -- he's an internal combustion engine -- and here the actor he strains to echo most is 1930s ham-hock Paul Muni. A small man, Penn even tries to evoke the working-class blubber of the original version's star, Broderick Crawford (and the character's model, Huey Long), pushing out his belly and swaggering as if he's got 100 more pounds to heave around than he actually has. It's a florid, vein-popping spectacle; he's trying too hard and, in the end, seems to know little about what's under the skin of dirt-poor Americans.
Even so, Steven Zaillian's film is faithful to Warren's vision, in that it centers not on Penn's Willie Stark, a 1930s redneck do-gooder turned corrupt Louisiana governor, but on his cynical, ethically vacant right-hand man, Jack Burden (Jude Law), who narrates Stark's rise from small-time pot-stirrer to party stooge to self-made demagogue to, finally, a people's leader easily given over to the dark side of legislative malfeasance and backroom skulduggery. Zaillian's approach to big-book adaptation is typical, condensing, telegraphing, and boiling down drama into info-bytes amid far too much smoky backlighting and a James Horner score that's so self-important, you want to take out the timpani with a grenade launcher.
Law is no asset -- looking rather sadly like John Ireland (the actor who played the 1949 Jack Burden), he has little control over his accent and zero energy. Drowning his conscience in bourbon, Burden seems less despairingly snockered most of the time than simply uninterested. A Bogartian voice of dry fatalism, Burden is both the tale's spoiled innocent and crypt keeper, recounting the descent -- his own and everyone else's -- into iniquity, including Sadie (Patricia Clarkson), Stark's girl toy and strategist; Anne (Kate Winslet), Burden's lost childhood love; and her brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo), an idealistic doctor suckered by Jack into Stark's service. Each suffers a dark night of the soul -- or so it's implied; Zaillian seems less concerned with making the novel's intricate political machinations clear than with simply filling virtually every scene with crucifixes. It's hard to say why Stark is on the cusp of being impeached by the state senate or why the public opinion of Jack's stepfather (Anthony Hopkins), a retired judge, is a matter of political life or death that warrants a historical investigation consuming half the film's running time. But it's clear from the lurking crosses that there's plenty of damnation, retribution, and redemption to be dished out to all concerned.
As if the film were deficient in ponderous metaphors, Stark's press conferences featuring the hollerin' governor are staged like fascist rallies on the nighttime capitol steps. (Not that symbology wasn't available -- the film was shot in a pre-Katrina Louisiana that appears to be virtually devoid of black people.) Carville or not, All the King's Men is something of a naive dinosaur -- for one thing, populist preachifiers like Long with their hammerhead morals were artifacts of the 1800s. Pitching a fit over the lost idealism of the American machine seems a little thin, once you realize, as Carville surely has, that the Huey Longs were aberrations and that the massive scale of corporate wrongdoing easily overshadows, in cost and blood and influence, any governor's graft habit or blackmail schemes.
It surely would be sweet to believe that American government would be a clean-running engine if it weren't for the scum-class four-flushers meddling with popular opinion and gaining access to the halls of power they didn't buy. Walter Lippmann, a propagandist for the power elite, would've approved of Warren's scenario, which frames the likes of Bill Clinton, pulling himself up by his bootstraps to the presidency, as part of the problem, but regards George W. Bush's taking the same seat as just how things are supposed to pan out for scions of the industrial aristocracy.