Here's how it breaks down,
First there's the great story rooted in real life: the rise of Willie Stark (Sean Penn,) a charismatic, populist politician who vows to represent the people and not the special interests. Stark runs for governor on a platform for the people. He promises roads, bridges, schools, and food. He wins in a landslide. However, despite his popularity there are plenty of powerful people who are not ready to pay more taxes to fulfill all of Stark's promises. Stark comes into power with devotion and passion but gradually he slips into the same corruption that he initially sought to defeat. It's a dead-on depiction of the nature of power and politics. The book by Robert Penn Warren won a Pulitzer. It is one of the greatest of American political novels. The first film adaptation - made in 1949 by Robert Rossen -- won three Oscars including best picture.
So the foundation is solid. Making the transition from book to screen (the film is based on the book, not the first film) there's an Oscar-winning screenwriter - Steven Zaillian, the man who wrote the screenplays for "Schindler's List," "Gangs of New York," and "Awakenings."
And who will bring it to life? A cast worth salivating over: Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, and Patricia Clarkson.
And then there's the absolutely gorgeous, nigh perfect cinematography of Pawel Edelman who also shot "The Pianist" and "Ray." He will get a nomination for best cinematography. You can write it down.
When the cinematography of a film is the element that holds your attention the most the filmmaker has a serious problem.
What happened? How did a film widely considered an Oscar-contender get 12 percent on Rotten Tomatoes?!
Wow... it had to be pretty low, but my guess was maybe somewhere in the 40s or 50s. But 12 percent?! Out of 113 reviews, only 13 critics gave it a positive review! That's just incredible. I mean, "Jackass: Number Two" got a 60 percent. Let's put this into perspective. This film with multiple Oscar winners found itself 48 percent lower than a film featuring a guy who sticks a leech on his eyeball. (Not that I'm dissing "Jackass" mind you.)
Really, though, "All the King's Men" does not deserve that low of a rating. All those things previously mentioned - story, script, dialogue, cinematography, a riveting performance by Penn - they're there and they're great. No, the failure of "All the King's Men" is a less tangible one that is difficult to explain and justify. Bluntly, the film just does not have a heart or a soul. Many things happen in the film that should really reach out and grab me. The characters go through trials, mistakes, and betrayals. They have to weigh their loyalties. There's plenty of tragedy to go around.
And I simply do not care.
Now there's nothing wrong with these characters or the acting. On a very basic level the film is at the very least entertaining and interesting. It's far from an unpleasant experience - which surely must be necessary to justify a 12 percent.
But how does one justify not caring? The whole basis of film criticism is to judge a movie and explain why it's good or bad. But to just say "I didn't care about the characters and what happened to them" is just not good enough. If Zaillian asked me about my experience with his movie I'd feel awful if I could not adequately explain why it did not work - and even though he has not, being forced to write the review is almost as bad.
All that can be said in defense is that this is the nature of art. In all art there is an element of it that cannot really be understood. Consider a painting. No matter how good an artist may be technically it matters not. Some other artist who just slops some paint this way and that can create a better painting that leaps off the canvas into your soul. That's art - the communion of souls. And in order for it to work there have to be two souls: one in the art, and one in the viewer.
Otherwise it's just an interesting entertainment.