Looking for Richard (1996)
We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!
Looking for Richard is so ambitious
that it works better as a partial failure than most
films do that are successes. This is a pseudo- documentary about the making of what I take to be a
non-existent film adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III and the discussions of the material
as the actors prepare. There is the discussion of Shakespeare and of Richard III, interspersed with
seeing how the actors actually do the scenes. Looking for Richard makes an engrossing companion
piece to last year's wonderful film production of Richard III with Ian McKellen.
The discussion opens up the play Richard III and indeed all of Shakespeare and gives us
an unparalleled behind-the-scenes look at the actors' craft. Director and
star Al Pacino falls down only in being a bit to self-indulgent and in allowing this to become a
vanity piece with too many diversions into arguments and clowning around on and off set.
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)
With a remarkable number of Shakespeare plays being made into films recently, Looking for Richard, directed, co-produced, and co- written by Al Pacino, could not have been more timely. There have been many films about the activity of making films, but to my knowledge this is the first film about the making of a Shakespeare film. It gives real insight into the richness and complexity of Shakespeare's writing as well as into the filmmaking process. Pacino's film seamlessly bounces between real documentary and scenes of the fictitious production of an all-star version of Richard III. Meanwhile not just the actors in the supposed film (Al Pacino, Harris Yulin, Penelope Allen, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Estelle Parsons, Winona Ryder, and Aiden Quinn), but also guests not in the film--like Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, Rosemary Harris, Peter Brook, Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, and Vanessa Redgrave--talk about the content of Shakespeare and the art of acting Shakespeare. To have all these people in one film is remarkable in itself. To get them all talking about a subject like Shakespeare is wonderful. To then waste so much time watching Pacino clown around as much as he does is agonizing. Indeed, Pacino as a director just does not know when to say no to Pacino the actor. After last year for me now the definitive Richard will be Ian McKellen. To see Pacino overpowering the role of Richard as he overpowers so many of his roles is almost painful. There are places that the plotting of the film is inconsistent. For example, apparently the actors are making no more than a film version of the play, but at one point Pacino argues with the adaptation's putative director as to whether they should have an expert discussing the play looking into the camera. Pacino's allusions to his other films amount almost to product placements--at one point he refers to a scene of the play as the "meeting of the Dons," he wears a cap that says "Scent of a Woman," and intentionally or not Richard III has rather obvious plot parallels to Scarface. The positives of Looking for Richard would dwarf the negatives if it were not for the latter taking too much precious time.
Pacino's feature-length discussion of Shakespeare also makes some telling points about the people who play Shakespeare. John Gielgud's viewpoint seems so plain and simple while Vanessa Redgrave goes off into a rambunctious and pretentious incoherence about the "pentameter of the soul." These discussions by some of the great actors of our time into why the Bard does what he does with language and how his plays are to be acted will undoubtedly be used in the years to come as part of college courses, yet it is entertaining enough for paying audiences even while it instructs. Even the street interviews are instructive and show a range of people from the well-dressed who have never seen a Shakespeare play to one man obviously less fortunate who waxes on about how if in school if we read more Shakespeare we would know how to feel and would have less violence in the streets. The film's playful approach to the classic starts at the very opening credits that at first say King Richard, then fill in the additional letters to say Looking for Richard. It is Pacino's point of view that today's actors are the inheritors of a grand tradition of acting and drama, the centerpiece of which is the contribution of William Shakespeare.
If Pacino's goal were just to make this one play accessible, which in large part it was, I would say he fell short of last year's production which shows more of the play without ever being inaccessible. For the additional insights into the plays of Shakespeare and the acting required in them I would say Looking for Richard is more successful. I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.