Friday October 25, 1996
Stars are the spoiled children of the movie business. We vote for them for president, give them Academy Awards for directing, applaud their every mood and move. Our reward, as far as Al Pacino is concerned, is films like "Looking for Richard."
An attempt, at least in theory, to deconstruct Shakespeare's "Richard III" and communicate its essence to a mass audience, "Looking for Richard" depends for approval not on anyone's potential interest in the play but rather on our bemused tolerance for star-driven self-indulgence in general and Pacino's brand of self-love in particular.
"Look," the film beams at us like eager parents who insist we admire their 2-year-old's artwork as worthy of the Louvre, "here's a certified movie star, complete with backward baseball cap and unkempt hair, and he's interested in Shakespeare! Isn't it wonderful to see him so involved?! And so creative!" Truly, we are not worthy.
Directed and produced by Pacino, who also stars, "Looking for Richard" takes two basic tacks in its attempt to get a handle on "Richard III," which everyone irrationally insists is difficulty itself. One is to have Pacino interview a wide spectrum of people about Shakespeare and the play, the other is to show several key scenes from the work, with guess-who in the title role, in both rehearsal and full-dress production.
The interviews include peppy talks with celebrated Shakespeare veterans like Kenneth Branagh and John Gielgud, less scintillating man-in-the-street comments that indicate a not surprising lack of public connection to the plays and carefully weighed words from Shakespearean scholars.
These last tend to be the most interesting ("Irony is only hypocrisy with style" is one memorable comment), but because Pacino has thoughtlessly chosen not to identify the speakers, we have no idea who is doing the talking. In fairness, the film doesn't ID the actors involved either, but recognizing James Earl Jones and Kevin Kline is a lot easier than these cloistered academics.
Ever present in all these discussions is Al himself, a man who also needs no introduction, especially to the entourage that surrounds him with loving looks and never fails to laugh at his every joke. No wonder the star always looks immensely pleased with himself as he determinedly mugs his way through the proceedings.
This perpetual hamminess is the bane of "Looking for Richard," as Pacino the director can in no way resist shots of Pacino the actor goofing around and so overdoing things that "Looking for My Close-Up" would be a more appropriate title. Excessiveness also infects his performance as the king, where Pacino scuttles around with a bothersome accent wedded to an unconvincing demeanor.
"Unconvincing" is also a fair word for the scenes plucked from the play. Though there is a lot of stouthearted "you Yanks can do it" sentiment in evidence in the interviews, the reality is that Pacino and fellow American actors Alec Baldwin (Clarence), Kevin Spacey (Buckingham), Aidan Quinn (Richmond) and Winona Ryder (Lady Anne) are not the best interpreters of this material. There's no shame in that situation, but it is frankly silly to pretend otherwise.
It's especially unfortunate for "Looking for Richard" that it appears less than a year after Ian McKellen's brilliant, updated version of "Richard III." Pacino's staging is stodgy and old-fashioned compared to the dash and excitement of McKellen's true modernization, and to compare Kristin Scott Thomas and McKellen to Ryder and Pacino in their respective Lady Anne seduction scenes is to be saddened and dismayed at how lacking the Americans come off.
While there's no harm in attempting to make Shakespeare more accessible, it's hard to imagine this film exciting anyone except Pacino's fans and those who are fatally charmed by celebrity actors. More a high-culture version of Planet Hollywood than a helpful gloss on its celebrated play, "Looking for Richard" is a worthy idea derailed by unyielding egotism. When Pacino asks, "What is this thing that gets between us and Shakespeare?," he's too self-involved to notice that in this case the thing is he and he alone.
Looking for Richard, 1996. PG-13 for brief strong language and some scenes of violence. A JAM production, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Al Pacino. Producers Michael Hadge & Al Pacino. Executive producer William Teitler. Narration written by Al Pacino & Frederic Kimball. Cinematographer Robert Leacock. Editor Pasquale Buba, William A. Anderson, Ned Bastille. Music Howard Shore. Art director Kevin Ritter. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. Penelope Allen as Queen Elizabeth. Alec Baldwin as Clarence. Kevin Conway as Hastings. Al Pacino as Richard III. Estelle Parsons as Margaret. Aidan Quinn as Richmond. Winona Ryder as Lady Anne. Kevin Spacey as Buckingham. Harris Yulin as King Edward.