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TV Reviews : John Goodman Makes a Juicy 'Kingfish'

March 18, 1995|CHRIS WILLMAN

Picture a Populist Democratic leader who cheats, lies, panders, philanders, plots thuggery, steals from the rich to give to the poor, champions minorities for his own cynical ends, and makes a fortune preaching something close to socialism. OK, now picture one who's not even a figment of Rush Limbaugh's imagination.

John Goodman is such a juicy choice to play '20s/'30s politico Huey P. Long that you may not even care much that "Kingfish"--a TNT biopic about Louisiana's most legendary snake--isn't very illuminating. Given the not-inconsiderable task of playing a guy who's almost always performing, Goodman gives good demagoguery, and is even better when he tones the bluster down--which, appropriately, isn't often.

The Long story has already been done, in the fictionalized 1949 best picture Oscar winner "All the King's Men," which this so-so TV film isn't about to improve on. Still, the real Long was so much stranger than fiction that he deserves his own unmasked vilification.

Here, writer Paul Monash and director Thomas Schlamme don't endeavor to soften or explain his unbridled ambition, and the lack of psychoanalysis is both a weakness and a strength. At least you get the pleasure of Goodman's graft in unsentimental bulk.

The flashback-structured story briskly traces the outline of Long's rise from railroad commissioner to governor to U.S. senator to (in 1935) martyred presidential hopeful. The devotion of his wife, mistress and flunkies never quite seems fully motivated, and Goodman has to deliver delusional quotables like "I am the Constitution!" a few too many times for comfort.

Still, if "Kingfish" rarely ventures beyond brassy rottenness, there are moments where it does veer off into some nice, suggestive understatement. Best is a quiet, wonderfully played scene near the end, when a tired Long, proudly touting his pro-black record, patronizes an African American porter (Bill Cobbs) with the most sincere affirmation he can muster and, unbeknown to him, gets wearily patronized right back.

* ' 'Kingfish: A Story of Huey P. Long" airs Sunday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. on TNT.

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