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No Oscars this time for ‘All the King’s Men’

Steven Zaillan’s remake is flat, uninspiring and wastes a great cast

Disaster engulfs the South. Blame spreads everywhere when innocents die. Incumbents suffer while novice politicians step in, only to generate more corruption.

This may sound like recent headlines, but it’s also the plot of Robert Penn Warren’s classic 1946 novel, “All the King’s Men,” which was made into an Oscar-winning 1949 movie and has now been disastrously reworked with Sean Penn as the crooked politician who dominates the narrative.

Warren used the career of Louisiana’s governor, Huey Long, who was assassinated in 1935, to create a complex portrayal of the corrupting nature of power. Robert Rossen’s film version angered some readers by simplifying the story, yet it won the Academy Award for the year’s best picture.

Broderick Crawford was named best actor for playing the Long character, called Willie Stark, and Mercedes McCambridge was chosen best supporting actress for her work as his mistress, Sadie Burke. Perfectly cast, they provided the film with a dazzling energy that has stood the test of the time.

Unfortunately, there will be no Oscars this time around. Steven Zaillian, the new film’s writer-director, fails on almost every level.

The crowd scenes, in which Penn’s Willie is supposed to make a demagogic connection with his audience, are flat and unpersuasive. Long’s story is rooted in the Depression, but Zaillian inexplicably updates it to the early 1950s. Shot on location in Louisiana, shortly before Katrina hit, the movie has so little sense of place that the actors could be standing in front of postcards of New Orleans and the Baton Rouge Capitol.

The cast looks good on a poster. Patricia Clarkson is certainly capable of duplicating McCambridge’s forcefulness, but she lacks a single scene in which she can demonstrate Sadie’s significance. Whenever Penn has to share the screen with James Gandolfini (effective in a minor role), it’s painfully obvious that Gandolfini would be a natural fit as Willie, while Penn is trying too hard.

Anthony Hopkins fails to make sense of an eccentric, much-honored judge who plays with toy catapults and acts as a surrogate father to the poorly defined narrator, Jack Burden (Jude Law). Burden’s love for the restless Anne (Kate Winslet) and his friendship with her brother (Mark Ruffalo) are equally sketchy. Kathy Baker has one scene that’s crucial to the plot, but the rest of her role seems to have been shredded.

Warren’s book and Rossen’s film established both Willie’s populist idealism and his talent for taking advantage of tragedy. Crawford was so effective at playing this rabble-rouser that Pauline Kael quipped that he “might just make you feel better about the President you’ve got.” (Long had White House ambitions.)

In the early 1950s, Warren seemed to retreat from the man whose life he’d fictionalized, claiming that he never knew “what Long was like, and what were the secret forces that drove him along his violent path to meet the [assassin’s] bullet.” Perhaps Zaillian, who won an Oscar for writing “Schindler’s List,” was attempting to explore that enigma and just got lost along the way.