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MOVIE REVIEW

'All the King's Men' falls down

Sean Penn's overacting obscures this retold tale of political corruption

"All the King's Men" is a big, important awards-season special with one glaring problem: It doesn't have anything urgent or even interesting to say. Oh, and Sean Penn staggers through it as if the Oscar were already on his mantelpiece, twitching spasmodically in a furious display of capital-A Acting. I'm not the first observer, or even the second, to liken the star's portrayal of fictional Louisiana governor Willie Stark to the late John Belushi's impersonation of Joe Cocker. So make that two glaring problems.

As directed by Steven Zaillian , an Oscar-winning screenwriter (``Schindler's List") who has dabbled a bit behind the camera (``Searching for Bobby Fischer," ``A Civil Action"), ``All the King's Men" is notable for its directionlessness. Zaillian has adapted the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren -- about a barnstorming Southern politician in the 1930s based closely on Huey Long -- as if the 1949 movie based on the book never existed. (It won best picture and best actor for Broderick Crawford . )

That's fine, although trying to turn Warren's kudzu-choked prose into an effective cinematic experience is a task that would daunt stronger men. Here's a typical descriptive passage: ``The linoleum mat was newish, and the colors were still bright -- reds and tans and blues slick and varnished-looking -- a kind of glib, impertinent, geometrical island floating there in the midst of the cornerless shadows and the acid mummy smell and the slow swell of Time which had fed into this room, day by day since long back, as into a landlocked sea where the fish were dead and the taste was brackish on your tongue." And that's just the linoleum.

The book's narrative voice is that of Jack Burden: former journalist, Stark's fair-haired fixer, and a scion of the old South that Willie, an upcountry farmer's son, dearly needs on his side. Jack is a burnt idealist and he's played by Jude Law, who never suggests he has been further south than the Isle of Wight. The accent's passable but the bearing isn't, nor is the sense of crippling nostalgia for a privileged weeping-willow youth. Law's eyes have known difficulty but never doubt.

After a brief opening sequence, ``All the King's Men" flashes back to Stark's political beginnings, showing how he rode a small-town schoolhouse collapse he had predicted as county treasurer to a run for governor. When he discovers he's being used as a vote-splitter by the state machine -- as personified by greasy politico Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini, grinning Tony Soprano's fatcat smile) -- Willie becomes his own man. He proudly calls himself a hick and appeals to all the other hicks to reach into the capitol and ``nail 'em up!"

Once elected, Willie burns his bridges with the state's entrenched insiders (who mount an impeachment attempt) while building more bridges and schools and hospitals for the people -- making sure he gets a piece of the action along the line. The film is about demagoguery and corruption, or it should be, but Zaillian (who has been tinkering with ``Men" in the editing room for a year) never lets us see the change occur. Willie is a terse, watchful man of the people and then he's the Bossman. What happened, and why aren't we privy to it?

Penn offers few clues. He's fine in the early scenes, as you sense Willie's outrage ready to explode beneath the Sears mail-order suspenders, but once he gets his dander up and begins flailing his arms, the performance turns nearly laughable. Penn doesn't inhabit the character; he treats him as a marionette whose strings have been tangled. If there's a statement here about how easily voters can be swayed by charismatic charlatans, it's lost in the sturm und drang. We never connect with Willie Stark, and that's fatal.

``All the King's Men" busies itself with subplots about Jack's love for his childhood sweetheart Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet, another Brit as ineffectively cast as Law) and about Willie's misuse of Anne's brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo, himself spectacularly underused), a high-minded surgeon in charge of the governor's new hospital. On the sidelines is Anthony Hopkins as a family friend and local power broker, and it's mildly amusing to see that while Law and Winslet have tortured themselves to achieve the proper suthun accent, Hopkins can't be bothered. He just sounds like Anthony Hopkins.

Also present are Patricia Clarkson as Willie's morally lax press secretary and Jackie Earle Haley -- welcome back, Moocher! -- as the governor's private gunman. Zaillian films them all as if they're players in a Shakespearean tragedy and, just to seal the deal, cranks the knob on James Horner's overbearing score to 11. At least Willie Stark trusted the hicks to think for themselves.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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