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ALL THE KING’S MEN – James Horner

September 22, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Clark Douglas

When it was originally slated for a late 2005 release, “All the King’s Men” was being touted as one of those “can’t-miss” Oscar nominees, with a good director and a cast that Academy members couldn’t help but drool over. Then it disappeared. Many rumors surfaced, as they always do, the most prominent one being that it was feared “All the King’s Men” couldn’t hold up against the 2005 competition. After a year of retooling and new marketing, it’s finally here, and despite the relatively weaker movie crop of 2006, “All the King’s Men” doesn’t stand a chance.

The film is based on the 1946 novel of the same name, which was made into an Oscar-winning 1949 film. Our narrator and central figure, Jack Burden (Jude Law) tells us a familiar story… an idealistic, charming politician (Sean Penn) with big goals who was hindered by his weaknesses… most notably, his weakness for women. If Bill Clinton’s name is coming to mind, it should come as no surprise that James Carville played a major role in helping get this film off the ground. The fictional politician at hand here is named Willie Stark, who becomes the governor of Louisiana in the early 1900’s (Stark is based on former Louisiana governor Huey Long). The plot is your standard rise-and-fall setup… we watch Stark go around making speeches, promising to help out the little men and bring down the rich bigwigs running the standard oil companies. Once he wins the office of governor, we see him enticed by the innate corruptibility that accompanies a position of power.

We’ve seen this sort of story before… Danny De Vito did it in fine fashion with his insightful portrait of “Hoffa”, and Mike Nichols gave us the superb “Primary Colors” a few years later. Zaillian’s film definitely falls short of the mark set by those films and others, as he presents a rambling, and ultimately pointless movie. Like “Hoffa” and “Primary Colors”, “All the Kings Men” is told through the eyes of a young aide, in this case, Jack Burden. Half way through, the movie suddenly forgets that it’s actually about Willie Stark, and it becomes a soap opera account of Jack’s life. The movie starts wandering off into odd areas like a kid lost in a big museum, only finding his way back to the main exhibit right before it’s time to go.

Not that the main exhibit is all that great, mind you. While Willie Stark is a compelling character in concept, the presentation of him is weak. Sean Penn’s performance is problematic… he plays the role with wild gusto and good old boy knee-slapping and arm-waving, but there’s no conviction or passion. He goes through all the motions admirably, but he seems like a man doing an impersonation, rather than actually becoming his character. This essentially leaves the viewer looking at nothing more than a man yelling and flailing about. Penn swings big, and misses by a mile.

The other characters are problematic too, though more due to bad casting than bad acting. Jude Law gives an uneven performance, not one of his finer hours, and his southern accent is shaky, at best. That also goes for Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, and James Gandolfini… one wonders if they were cast simply because they were available, not because they were right for the role. Now don’t get me wrong, I like Winslet, Ruffalo, Gandolfini, and even Law (most of the time, at least), but none of them seem to suit the role they are playing, particularly since they are all supposed to be born-and-bred citizens of Louisiana. Interestingly, Sir Anthony Hopkins doesn’t even bother trying to cover up his accent, but because he’s able to fully grasp the heart and soul of his role, he offers the film’s best performance. Hopkins plays Judge Irwin, an unflappable conservative judge with a few secrets of his own. Hopkins is only in a few scenes, but he makes his character so compelling and so real that I found myself wishing the movie were about him instead of Stark. Patricia Clarkson also acquits herself in a small role.

The score is by veteran composer James Horner, and though it’s gotten a lot of flack from many mainstream critics, I feel it’s one of his best in recent years… in fact, one of the best of 2006. Horner’s main theme is a brilliant composition, successfully fusing noirish jazziness, dark oppressiveness, and heartfelt passion into a single piece. Most of the score is centered around this theme, and Horner offers it up in numerous ways… sometimes on a piano, sometimes with a violin, other times with a full-blooded orchestra… he’s able to alter it enough in both style and instrumentation to keep things from becoming repetitive. It’s a string-heavy score, but refreshingly, Horner seems to have rediscovered the brass section in his recent work, and uses it to good effect in certain sequences. There are some other strong ideas here and there, but when it’s all said and done with, it’s the powerful main theme that lingers in the memory. Horner’s music is quite effective in the film, it adds a bit of gravitas and urgency to scenes that would otherwise seem completely ridiculous. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m a real sucker for scores like this one.

There are period songs throughout the film as well, selected by “executive music supervisor” T-Bone Burnett (who has taken on similar tasks for such films as “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “The Ladykillers”). It’s mostly early country and blues stuff, Hank Williams, Lightning Hopkins and so on. On something of a side note, it will be impossible for Randy Newman fans to watch this movie without constantly think of Newman’s brilliant album, “Good Old Boys”. In particular, there’s a scene where Penn is in a studio singing “Every Man a King”, written by Huey Long, and also performed by Newman on the aforementioned album. There’s a bit of classical piano music from Mozart and Beethoven in a couple scenes, as well.

“All the King’s Men” is a self-indulgent mess. It’s the type of movie that irritates me perhaps more than any other… a pretentious plea for an Oscar that feels like it was made for no other reason than to win an Oscar. I’m reminded a bit of “Cold Mountain” from three years back… a miscast piece of historical fiction with a bloated view of its own importance. It is impressive only on the technical and superficial levels, but it lacks a core. Aside from his obvious awards goals, is there a reason Zaillian made this film? There is no particular political point of note, and we never feel like we get to know much about Willie Stark as a person. By the end of the film, we know no more about him than we did at the beginning. It’s all presented with gorgeous cinematography and big names and great costumes, of course. That makes it the sort of film that a viewer, when asked what he or she thinks, can only reply, “um… it was well made”.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (4:28)
  • Time Brings All Things To Light (1:43)
  • Give Me the Hammer and I’ll Nail ’em Up! (5:57)
  • Bring Down the Lion and the Rest of the Jungle Will Quake in Fear (3:32)
  • Conjuring the ‘Hick’ Vote (3:12)
  • Anne’s Memories (2:45)
  • Adam’s World (3:41)
  • Jack’s Childhood (2:20)
  • The Rise to Power (3:15)
  • Love’s Betrayal (2:52)
  • Only Faded Pictures (2:47)
  • As We Were Children Once (2:47)
  • Verdict and Punishment (5:58)
  • All Our Lives Collide (3:21)
  • Time Brings All Things To Light… I Trust It So (7:36)

Varese Sarabande VSD-6756 (2006)

Running Time: 56 minutes 14 seconds

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Dick Bernstein. Score produced by James Horner.

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