When word started to leak that Steven Zaillian’s much-delayed adaptation of All The King’s Men was an unmitigated disaster, I began to quiver in anticipation. For I much prefer mangled train wrecks to blandly proficient middlebrow fare. Alas, All The King’s Men is that saddest of cinematic creatures: a boring disaster. Zaillian’s dud manages the formidable feat of being at once histrionic and agonizingly dull, hysterically over-the-top yet strangely lifeless. Sure it’s handsomely mounted, but then so are the heads of dead animals. That doesn’t make them art.
Writer-director Zaillian, who’s has an impressive list of screenplays to his credit—Schindler’s List, Searching For Bobby Fischer,and Gangs Of New York among them—probably thought he was protected from abject failure by the impeccable pedigree of the project. He adapted a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that had already been turned into an Oscar-winning classic and netted a cast loaded with Oscar winners (Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins) and nominees (Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Earle Haley) as well as some of the most respected thespians around (Patricia Clarkson, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini).
Yet the bountiful cast yields only the spectacle of great actors delivering terrible, terrible performances, beginning with Penn, whose Huey Long-like redneck demagogue sounds like James Carville with a mouth full of marbles and peanut butter. Like countless actors before him, Penn seems to have regarded his Oscar win as an excuse to abandon all pretensions to subtlety and understatement: his hillbilly Caesar seems to view spitting, screaming at the top of his lungs, and gesticulating wildly as the keys to effective public speaking. Penn delivers such an atrocious performance that it’s almost a relief when the film inexplicably shifts its focus away from Penn and on to top aide Jude Law’s attempts to dig up dirt on kindly patriarch Anthony Hopkins. This grindingly dull sub-plot gradually consumes the entire film.
Watching All The King’s Men, I was struck with a nagging question: has the age of irony killed off the melodrama? Have we as a culture become too cynical and smart-assed to accept—yet alone embrace—the operatic emotions, heavy-handed plot twists, and sweeping character arcs endemic to melodramas like All The King’s Men? I’m not arguing that irony is somehow responsible for the film’s failure, but it’s hard to take in the film’s hammy overacting, manipulative score, purple dialogue, florid narration, and bloated caricatures with a straight face. Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Douglas Sirk, Sam Fuller, and Vincent Minnelli, but movies like All The King’s Men are the reason the phrase “melodramatic” is used almost exclusively in a pejorative sense these days. Zaillian seems to think the ideal audience member for All The King’s Men are Academy members. I think a better audience would be the MST3K gang.
All The King’s Men manages to make demagoguery, personality politics and spiritual corruption—topics as seemingly evergreen as the futility of war and the complications of romance—seem dated and irrelevant. And though the filmhas all the makings of a Fiasco, I’m going to deem it my very first Failure, as it lacks the mad-prophet ambition and squirmy personality that powers every true Fiasco. Incidentally, for those keeping score, next week will be Oz Week on My Year Of Flops (insert prison-rape joke here) as I ease on down the road to ruin with The Wiz and Return To Oz.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Failure