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Toronto critics assassinate 'All the King's Men'

September 9, 2006 | 10:48 pm

"Scratch that one off the list!" a leading film critic harrumphed after watching "All the King's Men," which was so eagerly awaited in Toronto that fest-goers filled up two screening rooms (one seating 461, the other 235). Overflow had to be turned away, only the second time that's occurred during press showings this year that I know of here — the other was a noontime screening of John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus" on Friday, which truly titillated the crowd, receiving widespread praise.

Crowds exiting "All the King's Men," however, could be heard gasping, "That was terrible!" and "Christ, I thought it would never end!"


Out in the lobby I huddled against a wall with a gang of notable journalists, who were all dismissive, some damning. One of them fumed, "James Gandolfini should be forced to give one of his Emmys back!"

Gandolfini was one of the worst things in a movie full of lots of competition. Jude Law's Southern accent was lousy, but Gandolfini's was gawdawful — south Jersey parodying Louisiana — and he always seemed to be acting out shades of his notorious HBO character. One journo said, "It was like Tony Soprano ate Kentucky fried chicken and spit out that!"

But the film disappointed viewers on so many levels, considering its A List cast (Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, Kathy Baker) and the history of the original, which won best picture, actor (Broderick Crawford) and supporting actress (Mercedes McCambridge) of 1949. Initially, the remake was set to debut late last year so it could be part of the 2005 derby, but got bumped to 2006. Sony execs swore then that the delay wasn't because the film was bad, just unfinished. Now critics say it's finished, period. I couldn't find a single supporter among the many journos I polled afterward.

"Anticipation was so great and expectations were so high that I suspected it couldn't measure up no matter how good it was," one journo said. "But I had no idea it was this bad. Despite great pedigree, it turned out to be a real ugly dog.

"The worst part about it was the script," added the journo, a curious observation considering it was penned and directed by Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for writing "Schindler's List" and was nommed for scripting "Awakenings" and "Gangs of New York." "Not only was the language labored and dull, but it failed to do its basic job. This is the story of a popular politician who's corrupted and suffers a tragic downfall. The corruption is mentioned, but it's never shown. Sean Penn was foul from the start and when he stood before crowds, supposedly inspiring them, all he did was rant like a deranged preacher. I kept wanting to shout, 'Sean Penn, shut up!'"

Photo: One famed film critic called "All the King's Men" "the biggest bomb at the festival this year" among leading Oscar contenders.