Moviemakers are on one of their periodic Shakespeare binges, which is always good for the English language, if not necessarily for the advancement of the cinematic arts. Last year we got a radical Richard III, with powerful Ian McKellen reinterpreting the treacherous brute as a 1930s fascist, along with a kind of New Jack Othello starring Laurence Fishburne. In the wake of high-toned successes such as Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh is about to unleash his four-hour version of Hamlet. There's also Baz Luhrman's gangbanging update on Romeo and Juliet (hasn't he seen West Side Story?) and Trevor Nunn's new Twelfth Night, both opening this week. Splendid, we say. Maybe weary Jane Austen will finally be able to sit out a dance or two at filmdom's Brit-Lit Ball.
Enter Al Pacino and a most peculiar offshoot of the current Shakespeare craze. As far as we can tell, Looking for Richard is what is usually called a "docu-drama"--part play, part backstage revelation--in which the cast members in a production of the aforementioned Richard III go in search of character and author. But they find a lot more Al than Richard or William, and they wind up losing the audience.
Pacino financed, produced and directed this four-year vanity project, which means that he also got to play the lead. But formulating his own take on one of the great villains in theatrical history is not the only item on Pacino's agenda--not by a long shot. He also means to make Shakespeare relevant to the unwashed masses, to reveal the arduous process by which actor merges with role (yes, that old game of intramurals) and, if I don't miss my guess, to have people take him seriously again.
To these ends, Pacino bursts onto the streets of New York with a camera crew, demanding instant opinions of Shakespeare from pimply-faced teenagers, ham-faced cigar smokers and hoboes clearly in need of a shot and a beer. He ambushes a couple of stodgy gray scholars in their book-lined studies and chums it up, Bard-wise, with the likes of John Gielgud, James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave. Tediously, he argues character motivation with Frederic somebody-or-other, the insufferable director of his play-within-a-movie and the very portrait of theatrical excess.
We see the actual production only in bewildering shreds, and nowhere does it approach either Laurence Olivier's classic or McKellen's recent refurbishment. Offstage, Pacino wears four days' stubble, a backwards baseball cap and a pair of shades, posing as a comically aware, slightly tortured hipster/artist who happens to have an abiding (and self-admiring) interest in Elizabethan drama. At several points he waves around a dog-eared yellow copy of Cliffs Notes for Richard, as if he, too, were just another humble theater student trying to unlock the mysteries of the ages. Sure, and Sonny Corleone was an altar boy.
Granted, there's something touching in this rambling, disorderly wallow in "art," even something vaguely noble. But the thing's also stuffed with movie-star ego and blind condescension. In one of the film's endless rehearsal sequences, actors like Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin and Estelle Parsons huddle around a table with scripts in their hands while Pacino tells them they don't need to understand every word or deed in Shakespeare's famously intimidating play--they should just trust their instincts. But he doesn't trust the instincts of his own audiences enough to leave them alone: Like a high school teacher lecturing to the slow group, Pacino spends much of the film leading viewers, scene by scene, motive by motive, through Richard--lest we lose our way in the thicket. There's a numbing discussion of iambic pentameter, a lot of loud declamation and just one moment of self-doubt. "I don't know why I'm bothering to do this at all," Pacino admits.
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Good question. Superficially, this random but relentless examination of a classic is undertaken in a spirit of inquiry, but it's suffused with actorish self-regard and a kind of sly superiority that doesn't quite let the rest of us in on the big joke. The play's not the thing here--the player is.
In the end, deconstruction leads to destruction. In two hours (slimmed down from more then eighty hours of raw footage), Pacino unwittingly manages to break Richard III into unrecognizable pieces. Going for relevance, he produces chaos stained with self-interest. Believe it: The man appears in virtually every shot, smirking and hamming, as if to underline the self-parody into which his career has descended since the mid-Eighties.
Ironically, there was a time when this actor implicitly understood the Shakespearean tragedy with which he now presumes to grapple. Back then he expressed the nuances of the piece beautifully and felt no false need to explain them to us. Indeed, in the first two Godfather films, Pacino's Michael Corleone--ruthless, ambitious, isolated--was Richard reincarnate, the kind of blazing paradigm that today's Shakespearean updaters cannot hope to equal. In the fact that Pacino, reduced now to second-rate stuff like Scent of a Woman, Carlito's Way and Two Bits, can no longer live up to his greatest performances, may lie the dark, unspoken drama of Looking for Richard and, one suspects, the winter of his discontent.
Looking for Richard.
Produced and directed by Al Pacino. With Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Estelle Parsons, Winona Ryder, Aidan Quinn and Alec Baldwin.