Overthought, overwrought and thuddingly underwhelming, this high-profile misfire makes a congealed gumbo out of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning 1946 novel and the Oscar-winning 1949 movie that followed it, sinking a classy cast in the goo. Sean Penn is dynamite as Willie k, the Louisiana politician (modeled on Huey Long) who makes it to the governor’s mansion on the votes of his fellow “hicks,” but the film’s fuse just won’t light.
A big surprise, because James Carville, who knows his way around the wonk hothouse, spearheaded the project. But in updating this tale of how and why power corrupts, from the Depression to the 1950s, writer-director Steve Zaillian (A Civil Action) replaces grit with grandiosity, shooting Willie’s speeches like Nazi rallies. Miscasting also hurts. Jude Law in the pivotal role of Jack Burden, the newspaperman who works for Willie and loses his soul in the bargain, never looks as persuasively damaged as John Ireland did in the first movie. The fake Southern accent also defeats him, as it does Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins and especially James Gandolfini, who all figure in Willie’s rise and fall. And New Orleans-born Patricia Clarkson, who delivers solidly as Willie’s press wrangler, brings an authenticity to her role that emphasizes what the others sorely lack. But why go on? Talented people can screw up because, unlike hacks, they take big risks. This time the risk doesn’t pay off.