MOVIE REVIEW- Hicksville: Not fit for any king

If you want to see corrupt politics on a grand scale, watch the news. If you're nostalgic for cruder, low-tech dirty politicians of a bygone era, see All the King's Men. The latter is also recommended as a cure for insomnia.

To show how gullible some people can be, I bought into the hype that said All the King‚s Men, a remake of the 1949 Oscar winner (Best Picture, Actor and Supporting Actress), would officially kick off this year's award season. I was a bigger sap than Willie Stark (Sean Penn) is in the movie's early scenes.

He's a small politician in a small Louisiana town when reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law) first encounters him. Willie tries to expose graft involved in awarding a school construction contract, but no one listens to him. When a fire escape on the school collapses, killing three children, Willie becomes a celebrity, the man who tried to warn us.

Soon he's persuaded to run for governor, not knowing he's a patsy designed to split the "hick vote" so a certain party's candidate can win. He wises up, with Jack's help, and takes charge of his own campaign, rousing "my fellow hicks" with promises to build the roads, schools and bridges they need, making oil companies and utilities pay for them. Call him Governor Stark.

Although the story has been advanced a couple of decades from the Depression to the postwar boom (where it makes less sense), it's refreshing to remember that poor people once voted for one of their own who promised to improve their lot, rather than politicians demonstrably dedicated to making the rich richer.

Willie's team includes Jack, who lost his newspaper job for writing about Stark too favorably; and two of the people who played him in the early days, Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini in a nothing role) and Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson). The latter is also sleeping with the married governor but gets jealous of anyone who threatens her position as Second Lady.

Another change from the original film, which was based on Robert Penn Warren's novel, is that the screenplay by director Steven Zaillian starts toward the end and flashes back, instead of letting us watch Stark's character develop in chronological order. He's already corrupt and ruthless when we meet him, and that's a lot less interesting than watching him become that way.

Rather than paying for favors, Stark's tactics are blackmail and bullying. As he puts it, "I'd rather bust a man than buy him."

(It should be noted, for those who don't know, that this is a thinly fictionalized version of the story of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who is still a hero to many in the state for the things he accomplished, if not for how he accomplished them.)

The other main characters are from Jack's moneyed world. There's Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), the daughter of a former governor and the only woman Jack's ever loved; her brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a principled physician who sees through Stark but can still be co-opted; and Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), Jack's godfather, who leads the fight to impeach the governor.

Cut from the earlier film, which is odd because it might have attracted the teen demographic, is a subplot involving Willie's football-playing son.

More has been cut than added, less happens and it happens faster; yet the 2006 version is longer than the original. That means a lot of time passes with nothing much going on, which would be all right if there was something to hold our attention.

The extraordinary cast is extraordinarily weak. Penn has his moments when Stark gets fired up, but when he tries to be subtle, he's merely dull. Too much of the film focuses on Jack, and Law can't carry a film of this size. Hopkins, surprisingly, doesn't even attempt a Southern accent (perhaps afraid it will come out like Hannibal Lecter mimicking Clarice); and Clarkson, who's from New Orleans, doesn't bring back her native tongue very well.

T Bone Burnett has assembled his usual excellent collection of period music, mostly blues by Lightning Hopkins and such; but James Horner's orchestral score is needlessly bombastic, largely out of place and sometimes drowns out the dialogue– especially Penn's when he's in his soft-spoken mode.

Some of the best people in the business have contributed sub par work to All the King‚s Men, which looks like it was put together by all the king's horses instead.