Spoon-fed Shakespeare

Looking for Richard

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

          "YEAH, I SAW Hamlet," says a nameless New Yorker as she walks past Al Pacino in the film Looking for Richard. "It sucked." Scruffy Al looks like an old sot or a serious artist as he scurries down the street to listen--really listen--to his disinterested audience. He gives this woman a mild smirk, even though she just painfully confirmed his dark fear. "It's true," he's probably thinking wistfully. "People just don't understand Shakespeare anymore." His soft, wet eyes, though, say only one thing to the camera: "I care."

          Perhaps the most disappointing thing about actor-director-producer Pacino's new film lies in the discovery that Pacino himself--the same one I loved, to the brink of a celebrity crush, in Dog Day Afternoon and The Godfather--is not a terrifically genuine person. In this educational documentary/literary film-quest/testament to himself, it is nearly impossible to separate Pacino the person from Pacino the celebrity from Pacino the complete phony.

          Though the movie professes to be a stunning, contemporary examination of Shakespeare's wonderwork, Richard III, from a host of different perspectives (primarily actor and audience), many of Pacino's noble intentions are lost to his own pretensions. His performance as a regular, drama-loving guy may well be his worst to date; from under a fashionably backward Scent of a Woman baseball cap, he overdoes his passion for the project from the get-go. "I'm confused just explaining it," he says innocently (or is that disingenuously?) to his fellow producer. "It's very confusing and I don't know why we're doing this at all." His Betty Boop sincerity underscores that strangely insecure egomania so often attributed to famous actors. Seeing him like this, out of character and "in person," is as disturbing as talking about sex with your parents.

          Looking for Richard's personality crisis is evident early on. Three distinct movies are born in its first few moments, and try to upstage each other throughout their short lives. The most engaging of the trio involves various Manhattan pedestrians, as mentioned above, intercut with "experts" in interior settings, all discussing their feelings for the Bard. It winds up as a fantastically ironic (and, I believe, entirely unintentional) comparison of academic self-importance with real life pragmatism--or, as Pacino and co-producers Michael Hadge and William Teitler might put it, a dialogue between ignorance and enlightenment. After a series of regular folks--that's you and I--are stumped by simple questions about the plot of Richard III, we're told by a plethora of professors and actors (the most condescending of them being Pacino himself) that we're intimidated by the language and that the world is cheating itself of great literature. That might be true. But it's shameful how the filmmakers manage to alienate their audience by constantly implying they have a depth of feeling that we, the un-Shakespearienced illiterate masses, just don't understand.

          The pomposity blows sky-high in the film's "behind-the-scenes" sections, wherein the actors go about deconstructing the script. A bunch of Al's big-name pals float in and out of the rehearsal scenes looking painfully self-aware, like Warren Beatty in Madonna's Truth or Dare popumentary. Neither Kevin Spacey nor Alec Baldwin nor Winona Ryder have the balls to call Pacino on his ego trip the way Beatty skewered his girlfriend, but all the same, none of the stars seem remotely at ease playing themselves in front of the camera. As Pacino and the lesser-known actors and producers audibly gnaw at the script in discussions that would rival an undergraduate seminar in "Why I'm Cool," we are left to people-watch as the camera pans past recognizable faces.

          They get to redeem themselves, however, in a series of disconnected dramatic scenes, which are commendably well-acted. It speaks well of both the actors and old Will that they achieve some nice dramatic moments, despite the choppy format. Though he only gives up snippets of Richard III's actual text every few scenes, after he feels he's explained every syllable to his challenged audience, Pacino himself does make a killer Richard. It only serves to reinforce the idea that maybe, just maybe, contemporary audiences don't need to be spoon-fed. Even if you think William Shakespeare's Romeo &Juliet is little more than eye candy, there's no denying that it's packing teens into the theaters--and let's not even get into Kenneth Branagh's films. Of course classic literature can stand on its own, when it's brought to life by people who give their audience some credit.

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