Even Sean Penn Can’t Save King’s

092506 article rex Even Sean Penn Can’t Save King’sThe best thing about last week’s Toronto International Film Festival was its reputation as a showcase for unveiling all of the big (and occasionally important) movies and performances you will see in the coming movie season. From Heath Ledger as a heroin addict in Candy, Julie Christie as a woman wasting away from Alzheimer’s in Away From Her, and Dermot Mulroney as the handsomest cancer victim I’ve ever seen in Griffin & Phoenix, to Sigourney Weaver in Snow Cake as an eccentric autistic with a passion for shadow puppets and eating snow, it was obvious that the actors all seemed to be competing for Oscars with “Vote for Me” stamped on their foreheads.

The glut of films I saw in Toronto are already heading this way, and the first up at bat is All the King’s Men, a sorry and misguided rehash of Robert Penn Warren’s famous 1946 novel that fictionalized the life of Huey P. Long, the Louisiana swamp rat turned governor who was assassinated on Sept. 8, 1935. Called the “Kingfish” by voters who turned up at the polls in record numbers, his rise to fame on the promises of renewal, reform and redemption for the poor and disenfranchised “hicks” of Louisiana who were wiped out by the Depression was understandable, if unpredictable. The lurid but colorful ways in which he fell for his own cracker-barrel rhetoric, turned into an evil demagogue and became the role model for every crooked Southern politician for the next 70 years (including several disgraced Louisiana governors, state senators and even the character of “Boss” Finley in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth) are symbols of political corruption that plague the Delta to this day.

The novel’s post-Depression setting, in which the power-mad alter ego of Huey P. Long was called Willie Stark, makes perfect sense for the same kind of gullible populist naïveté that got Adolf Hitler elected in Germany. So does the postwar timing of Robert Rossen’s greatly admired Oscar-winning 1949 film, which also secured a Best Actor prize for Broderick Crawford. For some senseless reason, writer-director Steven Zaillian has changed the new All the King’s Men to the 1950’s, one of the dullest decades in Louisiana history and a time of no political significance. The impact of the novel is lost, although unfortunately the faux poetry in the book’s long, rambling descriptive passages rubs a phony literary patina on an already-weakened story and makes the actors look silly and desperate. (The endless sweat balls on Jude Law’s forehead are not from the humidity.)

Faulknerian stream-of-conscious can be fascinating in the pages of Southern Gothic literature, but not when it pours out of the mouths of British actors like Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Sir Anthony Hopkins, as lost in the moss-covered muck as alligators in Alaska. As Sadie, the cagey news hen who helps Willie rise to power before becoming his bitter, disillusioned mistress (a longer and more important role in the 1949 version that won an Oscar for Mercedes McCambridge), even Patricia Clarkson—a New Orleans native who knows an authentic drawl when she hears one—disappears in the muddle. She’s elevated to an important staff job in the governor’s corrupt inner circle, but we never know what she does because we never see her doing it. She just kind of hangs out, miserable and disoriented. So do Ms. Winslet and Mark Ruffalo, as ill-fated siblings, and Mr. Hopkins, as an aristocratic judge whose move to impeach the governor is foiled by a blackmail plot that drives him to suicide. Jude Law, sporting the phoniest accent in the film, plays Jack Burden, the idealistic journalist promoted to easily manipulated press secretary whose principles turn to gumbo. He frames the film and narrates it in a voice that sounds ossified. Working without a compass, these impressive all-star principals are easily upstaged by Willie Stark’s stooges— a fat moron named Tiny (James Gandolfini) and a poker-faced bodyguard called Sugar Boy (memorably played by the sinister and chilling Jackie Earle Haley). Mr. Zaillian knows how to cast them, even if he doesn’t know how to direct them.

All of which brings me, reluctantly, to Sean Penn. We know he can act, but as Willie Stark, there’s something missing. He starts out so dumb and straight that he only drinks Orange Crush, then ends up a vicious, sleazy drunk, betraying his own ideals and poisoning everyone who believes in him, loud and volcanic but hardly imposing—a wet, bulbous, beefy shortcake of a dictator. He’s supposed to be the bare-knuckle focus of the film, but Mr. Zaillian’s pretentious script and meandering direction divert attention to too many other tangential characters, diluting the juice and punch of the epic 1949 original. Mr. Penn has force, stumping through the sugarcane fields appealing to his “fellow hicks” to stand up for their rights and collect their rewards, while the only rewards he collects are his own—and theirs, too. But too many aspects of his character are left unexplored. The rise and fall of a redneck who wins the faith of the common people and betrays them to line his own coffers is not a new story. Think Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd, or James Cagney in A Lion Is in the Streets. Both were based on the turbulent reign of Huey P. Long. This is the first time he’s been denied the fire and fury to become the star of his own story. Despite handsome camerawork and rich details (moss-covered live oaks, decaying plantations and plates of boiled crawfish), this sad failure to improve a film classic is an errand for fools. It’s slow, talkative and boring, and the melodramatic ending lacks a vital emotional impact. Worse still, nothing about it is reminiscent of the actual Huey P. Long. In interviews, Mr. Zaillian says he avoided any attempt to be influenced by either the man or the legendary 1949 film. Too bad, because he might have learned something. Archival footage of the real Huey P. Long is a matter of public record, easy to obtain, and if you visit the State Capitol in Baton Rouge where he was murdered (the bullet holes are a tourist attraction), you can also see the man himself. In the unsettling photos and oil paintings of the real Huey P. Long, he looks like Broderick Crawford, not Sean Penn.

Patrick Swayze?

For pure perverse pleasure, don’t miss Keeping Mum, a loopy confection with wry, dry and irrepressible Dame Maggie Smith as the most charming serial killer since Cary Grant’s aunts in Arsenic and Old Lace.

On a train chugging through the English countryside, blood seeps out of a steamer trunk belonging to a cheerful passenger who is also pregnant. In the trunk are the headless remains of her unfaithful young husband and his home-wrecking girlfriend.

Fade to today. In a picturesque hamlet called Little Wallop, Reverend Walter Goodfellow (Rowan Atkinson), the addled vicar, is too busy fretting over his boring Sunday sermons to notice that his bored wife Gloria (Kristin Scott-Thomas) is dallying with her sexy American golf instructor, Lance (a surprisingly loose and very funny Patrick Swayze); his teenage daughter Holly is fast becoming the village slut; and that his young son Petey is a punching bag for the school bullies. How blind are those who can only see God.

This dysfunctional puzzle alters abruptly with the arrival of the aptly named new housekeeper, Grace, a prim, helpful, candy-tongued little muse whose only possession is a mysterious steamer trunk. As the plot builds, so do the results of Grace’s labors. She is, you see, much more than just another mad old serial killer who solves everybody’s problems by turning curling irons and frying pans into lethal weapons. She’s also on a mission, and before the film reaches a surprise finale that will leave you gasping and chuckling at the same time, the title Keeping Mum assumes a double meaning.

Director Niall Johnson and his co-writer, Richard Russo, have shrewd eyes for quaint British mannerisms and keen ears for the eddies of their curious speech patterns. After dumping the grouchy neighbor with the unruly dog into the pond (keep an eye on the algae!), Grace says, almost sotto voce: “Mr. Brown’s on holiday.” “Where’s he gone?” “I think he said ‘Down Under.’” Surrounded by seasoned pros and so much perfect comic timing, you’d think Patrick Swayze might be as out of place as a mongoose in Maine. Not a bit. Playing the British idea of the American boy-toy cliché, he’s in on the joke and working it. Swinging more than his golf clubs, and milking every line with horny sexual innuendo, he’s funny, sensual and aging nicely.

Air-Devils

Flyboys is a rowdy, well-made action movie about American pilots who traveled to France in 1917 to form the daring, heroic air-defense team known as the Lafayette Escadrille. The airplane had just become the major instrument of destruction in a war that claimed nine million lives, and this squadron of daredevils became fearless icons in the hearts of the French people. This film, directed by Tony Bill, chronicles the rivalries, prejudices, loyalties and friendships of nine new American arrivals, barracked in a chateau in Verdun with a lion named Whiskey for a mascot, but there’s not a lot of character development; the movie is more about what they do, not who they are.

Mr. Bill, the former actor turned filmmaker, has done a skillful job of blending period atmosphere and narrative style with breathlessly exhilarating aerial action. Because he was an unproven novice himself in 1963, when he made his debut as Frank Sinatra’s kid brother in Come Blow Your Horn, he believes in hiring unknowns. Except for James Franco, as the Texas cowboy who falls in love with a French peasant and risks everything to save her from the Germans, and the wonderful, gimlet-eyed Jean Reno, as the French commander who finds himself constantly bending the rules to protect the American flyboys, you won’t spot a familiar face, but the meaty cast delivers with an impact that is as fresh and solid as Sears.

This is a good thing, because Flyboys depends on more fire in the sky than some audiences might like. But the one-on-one bomber sequences, like giant dragonflies in mortal combat, can only be described as awesome. Six years in preparation and $60 million in execution, all independently raised, the film re-creates all of the bombers and tracer bullets so authentically and with such terror and accuracy that you cannot believe the war footage isn’t happening at the minute you are watching it. The result guarantees a thrill a minute for all ages, and a few tears, too, in an old-fashioned kind of war movie with heart (in the best kind of tradition) that keeps you on the edge of your seat with your mouth wide open.