I’d take almost any colorful-character shtick over the gloomy gravitas that settles over All the King’s Men early on and never leaves. If ever there was a man whose life and character called for flamboyant treatment, it was Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, widely accepted as a prototype for Willie Stark, the populist firebrand turned demagogue at the heart of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. And if ever there was a wrong man for the job of committing to film this Democrat idealist and thug, it’s the fastidious Steven Zaillian, the brains behind the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, who also wrote and capably directed the intelligent 1993 chess drama Searching for Bobby Fischer.

Not that Penn Warren’s novel lacks for ideas. Willie Stark’s brawling passage from Robin Hood wannabe to corrupt party autocrat presents a classic example of the long history of Janus-faced American populist leaders — men who do good by evil means, grow addicted to power and live large, while the hungry masses who voted for them scrabble to get by. But the novel plays less as a cautionary moral tale than as a portrait, at once visceral and lyrical, of an unprepossessing hick who, after being played for a sucker just once, blossoms into a charismatic orator who goes to bat for the dirt-poor constituents who voted him into office, while running his administration and eliminating his enemies with an iron fist.

Overwhelmed, perhaps, by the daunting task of going one better than Robert Rossen’s acclaimed 1949 adaptation, Zaillian tamps Sean Penn’s Stark down into a common blusterer with all the presence of a buzzing gnat, who flaps his arms, yells and mumbles that dignity is overrated and dirt is what makes the grass green, and who leers at the couple of lonely strippers who symbolize his Johnny-come-lately discovery of the sensual life. We might have gotten a more energetic and less fussy performance from the film’s executive producer, James Carville, with his braggart’s exuberant delight in the joy of politicking for its own sake.

The real problem, though, is that the movie belongs not to Stark but to someone a lot dearer to Zaillian’s sedate heart. As in the book, Stark’s power-seeking shenanigans are filtered through the jaded observations of Jack Burden, scion of a well-to-do family who gives up a promising career as a muckraking journalist to become Stark’s right-hand man. Sluggishly played by Jude Law, who’s also been lumbered with a bleary voice-over, Jack is a burden by nature as well as by name — though mostly to himself, since he appears to have nothing he can call a personal life, having relinquished (in copious foggy flashbacks) all romantic rights to the sister (Kate Winslet) of his sensitive best friend (Mark Ruffalo), son of Louisiana’s former governor. It takes a feeble fellow indeed to turn down this ripe maiden — stretched out on a bed in nothing but a snowy counterpane — on the grounds that the time is not right.

Aside from a slyly entertaining Patricia Clarkson, who appears all too infrequently as Stark’s manipulative press attaché, the movie is populated with depressives creeping toward doom in a somnolent noir setting that feels ill-suited to Stark’s rambunctious career. On the face of it, Jack represents the moral high ground of the Old South aristocracy confronting Stark’s up-from-nothing opportunism, and a less moribund movie might have made dramatic hay with the way the waters get muddied between these extremes when Stark tries to persuade Jack to dig up dirt on Judge Montague Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), a man of apparently unimpeachable probity who raised Jack and brought out the best in him. Zaillian has moved the period from the Depression to the 1950s, possibly to edge closer to our own anodyne political age, but he never exploits the contrast between the outsize politicos of the 1930s and the whey-faced, gray-suited corporate types who pass for politicians today, when careers go out not with the bang of a gun but with the whimper of a press release.

All the King’s Men is handsome enough in its stately way (the cinematographer is Pawel Edelman, who also shot Ray and Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist), but Zaillian’s idea of noir is dimming the lights so that we can hardly see Patrizia Von Brandestein’s genteel vintage production design, and punctuating such action as there is with James Horner’s unctuously ceremonial score. The end, when rivulets of blood run together to underscore the inextricability of good and evil, feels less like a comeuppance than a bad joke.

ALL THE KING’S MEN | Written and directed by STEVEN ZAILLIAN, adapted from the novel by ROBERT PENN WARREN | Produced by MIKE MEDAVOY, ARNOLD W. MESSER, KEN LEMBERGER and ZAILLIAN | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

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