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Not quite royalty

But Penn’s performance makes ‘All the King’s Men’ worthy.


LESS THAN ROYAL: Winslet and Penn.
  • LESS THAN ROYAL: Winslet and Penn.

A paunchy-looking Sean Penn still won’t measure up to Oscar winner Broderick Crawford in his portrayal of Willie Stark in a new version of the Robert Penn Warren novel “All the King’s Men.” But give credit to Penn for capturing the oratory style that’s required of Warren’s ebullient Stark, who quickly rises from a low-level city treasurer to governor of Louisiana by appealing to “the hicks,” as Penn calls out to the poor and downtrodden in campaign speeches in rallying them against the rich class and its candidates.

Some movie lovers will say that an Academy Award winner such as “All the King’s Men” (1949) should not be remade. But it has been almost 60 years, and young people aren’t familiar with Crawford, the heavyweight who also made a name for himself in the ’50s as the growling law enforcement officer in TV’s “Highway Patrol.” Nor do they probably know of “All the King’s Men,” though locally the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in recent years presented Warren’s work as it had been originally written for the stage, before it became a gripping, award-winning film. The parallels to contemporary national politics are obvious, and it’s no surprise to see James Carville’s name as one of the executive producers.

Screenwriter-turned-director Steve Zaillian presents a beautiful film for most of the two-plus hours — until the climatic scene turns into a 1960s-style black-and-white home-movie film a la Ruby-Oswald-Kennedy in Dallas. And Penn is a strong enough actor to carry the Stark role, which is loosely based on 1930s Louisiana politician Huey Long.

With such talents as Patricia Clarkson, playing Stark’s speechwriter and mistress; James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini as “Tiny” Duffy, the political kingmaker; Kate Winslet as Anne Stanton, daughter of a late great past governor; Mark Ruffalo as Adam Stanton, the troubled son of same past governor; and Anthony Hopkins, as the respected retired Judge Irwin, whose pronouncements on Stark help sway the legislature to line up against him, one would almost expect this film to be Oscar worthy.

But it’s not. We only realize about halfway into the movie that it’s not set in Warren’s late Depression period, but rather the 1950s, for whatever reason. And then there’s Jude Law, who we want to say is better here than in previous efforts, with the exception of “Road to Perdition.” But Law’s Jack Burden, a newspaperman who covers Stark’s campaign and then goes to work with him, spends the film in a depression.

Granted, this is Shakespearean-style tragedy, but Law’s Burden doesn’t have to foreshadow its sadness from the first note. It’s THE critical supporting role in the film, as it’s both the story’s narrator and the film’s conscience juxtaposed against Stark’s descent from man of the people to corrupt politician. Law’s lips barely turn upward when he watches Willie go into his act for the first time with the poor folk at a county fair, and he’s dour even sitting across from a naked Winslet sprawled across a bed, eager for his advances that never come. His voice-over lines are equally dour, making Warren’s words even more cumbersome than originally written.

Of all the actors, only New Orleans native Clarkson gets the dialect down right, while Gandolfini is all over the South.

Meanwhile Penn, his hair wildly askew, throws his hands around and exhorts his followers to “nail up” the greedy politicians and corporations who have forced them into their hole — there’s Christian symbolism all over the place. But Penn makes it worth the admission price.

Jim Harris

‘Dahlia’ wilts over time
As a long-time lover of L.A. noir films, I really, really wanted the latest in that genre — director Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” — to work. In some respects, it does. Owing much to De Palma’s skill, it’s beautiful to look at, full of interesting and innovative camera work, and with more than a few dandy plot twists.

The problem is that it just takes too long to get to its meat and potatoes. By the time it does, you’re so snowed in with subplots that you don’t know which way is up.

Based on one of the plot-dense detective novels of James Ellroy, “The Black Dahlia” eventually does get around to talking about the infamous Hollywood murder. That, however, is a full 40 minutes into the film. Filling the space before we finally get to what we came for is the story of L.A. detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhardt). We get the story of their past exploits, the story of their good-natured love-triangle over ex-hooker Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), and eventually a deadly — and fishy — shootout between the two heroes and a houseful of nogood-niks. It is only panning back from the aftermath of this shootout that De Palma discovers the disemboweled body of Elizabeth Short (played in a series of screen test reels by Mia Kirschner), a local would-be actress with a penchant for bisexuality and an all-black wardrobe — hence the name the press soon pins on her, after a popular film of the time, “The Blue Dahlia.”

Soon enough, a Benzedrine-amped Blanchard becomes obsessed with finding her killer, and gets involved in some nefarious doings involving Kay’s old pimp who’s soon to be released from jail. Bleichert, meanwhile, hooks up with Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank), a nymphomaniac socialite who had been an ex-lover of Short’s, and who just might have had something to do with her death.

Elkhart is serviceable here as the stereotypical Cop With a Shadowy Past, as is Hilary Swank (is there any character she can’t pull off?). Not so good, however, is Josh Hartnett, proving once again that he’s just too teen-idol hunky to pull off a convincing adult role. More often than not, he just ends up looking like a kid dressed up in daddy’s fedora and trench coat, and his delivery isn’t much better: a confused-sounding deadpan that never changes in the slightest no matter what’s going on onscreen.

— David Koon

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