IDYLLIC MEMORY: Jude Law with Kate Winslet as a paragon of all that’s unattainable and pure.
Back in 1962, crotchety, revered film critic Manny Farber came up with two categories of movies: white elephant and termite. When studios self-consciously try to grind out a work of art, they generally turn out a white elephant, all earnest pretension with nothing inside. When a hard-boiled genre director turns out an inspired film, it’s a termite movie, burying beneath its conventional surface germs of genius that a burrowing viewer can discover.
These days we’re lucky to find either kind of movie, except at this time of year, when the Oscar-aspiring elephants start waddling out. First in line is All the King’s Men, Steve Zaillian’s adaptation of the 1946 Robert Penn Warren novel.
It’s not the first time the book has been turned into an elephant. Robert Rossen’s 1949 adaptation picked up Best Picture and a slew of other Oscars but has some termite appeal to it, maybe because it takes a queasy noirish turn. Zaillian says he’s never seen it. If he had, he might have realized that in order to make this elegant doorstop work as a movie, it’s necessary to abandon almost everything that makes it work as literature: language, depth, complexity.
For better or worse, Zaillian remains faithful to the text, starting in medias res with the Warren-written voiceover narration of Jack Burden (Jude Law, bland but beguiling, the best thing about the film), modernist everyman. Burden’s eloquent, existential whining provides a lulling background as he rides with Willy Stark (Sean Penn, pissed off from beginning to end), the populist and increasingly corrupt governor, to the home of Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins, in a reprise of John Quincy Adams in Amistad), the quintessential honorable man. The judge has stood up to Willy, and Jack, for whom the judge was a father figure, must get him to back down.
Hold that thought, because we have a lot of backtracking to do, to the day when Jack, then a hard-drinking, underachieving reporter, first meets Willy, then an idealist hick defying the rotten local political machine. On to Willy’s run for governor, when he’s the last one to catch on that he’s being played for a sap by the same hacks he’s trying to throw out of office. And to when he catches on to the game and victory and power and money and compromises and scantily clad ice-skaters follow. And back again to Jack’s idyllic memory of teenage Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), paragon of all that’s unattainable and pure, swimming in the moonlight as he and her brother, the future doctor and moral scold Adam (Mark Ruffalo), look on.
It’s a lot to keep track of and kind of gets in the way of other things, like making a movie. Zaillian gives a workout to the elements that make this book such a favorite with high-school English teachers: the neat symbolism, the themes of good and evil, guilt and innocence. But the ideas remain abstract, at times as lathered and fustian as the inescapable James Horner score. Occasionally, All the King’s Men does offer a tidbit that will get the termites burrowing, like the bit of business at the very end with the blood and the Louisiana state seal. Is it genius? Camp? Kitsch? Questions like that don’t win Oscars, but they do give you something to dig into.