- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on commonsensemedia.org.

‘All the King’s Men’

PG-13 for an intense sequence of violence, sexual content and partial nudity.

Common Sense Media: Pause. For ages 14 and older.

** (out of five stars)

Running time: 128 minutes

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that this intense political drama probably will be of little interest to their children.

Families who see this movie can discuss the political process. Candidates often are elected based on promises to voters. What happens after they’re elected, when their efforts to fulfill those promises encounter roadblocks such as lack of funding or loss of idealism? Do voters really believe campaign promises will be kept? Should politicians be more accountable to their constituents? What are the strengths and weaknesses of America’s political system?

Common Sense review: Ambitious but slow-moving and trite, this film features a strong performance by Sean Penn as Willie Stark. An ambitious, teetotaling Louisiana politician who promises his poor constituents that he’ll fight the smug, rich, upstate power brokers, Willie (who is loosely based on real-life politician Huey Long) loses his way after getting distracted by the conventional emblems of corruption — women and alcohol. His downfall is at once romanticized and inevitable, as the movie, based on Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, winds down to an overwrought finale.

While professional politicians make fun of Willie’s country-bumpkinish predilections, reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law) sees in Willie an essential decency. As Jack narrates Willie’s story, it intersects with his own.

Willie’s own storytelling is relentlessly public; he has a natural gift for rousing audiences. Encouraged to run for governor by political power wrangler Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), Willie learns that he’s being used by the professionals to engineer another candidate’s victory, and that’s when he discovers his brilliant oratorical voice. He tells his constituency — the poor folks he refers to as “hicks” — that he’ll be their champion.

Once Willie is installed as governor, he’s accused of graft. Although the film doesn’t delve into whether he really is corrupt to the degree that his detractors claim, it makes it very clear that he lapses into personal debasement in the form of women and whiskey. Jack, who carries a romantic torch for the lovely Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), is especially dismayed by Willie’s fall.

Jack’s infatuation with Anne and friendship with her excruciatingly idealistic brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo) leads him to imagine a more just world than the one he inhabits. As much as Jack wants to remember his youth — and Anne — as a hazy flashback, the repetition of this theme becomes excessive. In the end, “All the King’s Men” feels more like a burden than a revelation.

Sexual content: Many images of women in the movie seem based solely on men’s fantasies. Dancers onstage reveal cleavage, legs and bottoms to Willie, who selects each night’s sex partner from these semiprivate auditions. In repeated flashbacks, Jack watches Anne naked in a river (from the back, in the moonlight) and remembers her undressing for bed.

Language alert: Racial slurs, other mild expletives.

Violence alert: Characters fight, awkwardly; after a suicide by shooting, there’s blood on the wall; two men are shot to death.

Social-behavior alert: Frequent cigarette and cigar smoking; a couple of characters are alcoholics, and they and others drink to the point of drunkenness, including passing out.

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