Most of us would agree that there’s only one Al Pacino. But this year in Venice, there are actually two: Pacino appears in two films at the festival this year, David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, about a lonely Texas locksmith stuck in a romantic dream, and, playing out of competition, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, the story of an actor who, after being struck with crippling anxiety, gets his mojo restored — some of it, anyway — by a manipulative muse (played by Greta Gerwig). In some ways, they’re two versions of the same character, grizzled romantics who reach out toward love just one more time. But in only one of these films does Pacino utter the line “I was thinking of going to the pancake jamboree down at the Legion.”
If you know that The Humbling is based on the 2009 Philip Roth novel of the same name, you also know that it would give Roth shpilkes in his geneckteckessoink to subject a character to anything called a pancake jamboree. Only David Gordon Green (and screenwriter Paul Logan) would do that, and the bad news is that Manglehorn, instead of being homespun and heartfelt, is stiff and corny and, occasionally, howl-inducing. Still, Pacino stays afloat in it, as does his co-star Holly Hunter, so naturally youthful-looking that, now that Dick Clark is gone, she should officially inherit the mantle of World’s Oldest Teenager. Their scenes together, in spite of the pile of god-awful dialogue they’ve been handed, have an easygoing grace. Bonus for cat lovers: Pacino croons “It’s Only a Paper Moon” in the ear of a pouty-looking Persian cat, who clearly doesn’t know a good thing when she hears it.
The Humbling, on the other hand, is a bracing and fascinating piece of work, a movie made by an old man, about an old man, starring an old man, from source material written by an old man. Those factors aren’t a liability — they’re what give The Humbling its bittersweet vitality. Pacino is marvelous here – he writes in big, loud loops, as usual, and just when you want to suggest that maybe, just for a bit, he might try to use his Indoor Voice, he pulls himself back to reveal the gruff, subterranean grandeur that made him a great actor in the first place. Gerwig is the weak link here: She doesn’t have the aura of hauteur you need to play the womanly schemer — there’s nothing remotely mysterious about her. But Pacino makes us believe that there is: When he looks at her, he’s an anguished lion with a thorn in his paw — his eyes hold the weary truth that if love will kill you, not loving at all will kill you quicker. Pacino is so good at being lovesick that, even if his performance in Carlito’s Way is the zenith he’ll never top, it’s still a deep, shivery pleasure to watch him play a man consumed with love. If we ever get too old for that, it’s the end of movies as we know them.
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Also of note: Peter Bogdanovich’s romantic caper She’s Funny That Way — in which Owen Wilson plays a big-shot Broadway director who changes the life of Brooklyn call girl Imogen Poots — is entertaining enough. She’s Funny (playing here out of competition) is Bogdanovich’s first fiction feature since the 2001 The Cat’s Meow, and at least he’s trying to recapture some of the gone-bananas energy of earlier pictures What’s Up, Doc? But before long, the story’s all-too-visible mechanics become wearisome, and even though the picture takes place in a chattery, vibrant, highly moviefied version of New York, I couldn’t get past one big, glaring pothole: Save for one or two very minor characters, there’s not a single person of color in Bogdanovich’s Manhattan. I couldn’t even find one or two dotting the background. Even those of us who love New York, flaws and all, harbor a dream version of it — but if your dream of New York is an all-white one, it’s time you had the sheets yanked from under you.
I got much more enjoyment — admittedly of a different kind — from an evocative, beautifully constructed essay-documentary by German film critic Rüdiger Suchsland, From Caligari to Hitler, which uses Siegfried Kracauer’s book of the same name as a springboard to talk about German identity as it’s reflected in the films of Weimar-era directors like Lang, Murnau, Lubitsch, and Wilder. The usual suspects — Metropolis, The Blue Angel — are all well represented. But Suchsland digs even deeper, and his commentary on films like the 1930 People on Sunday, in which five young people from Berlin ramble through the city and its environs on a typical weekend day, shows how the youthful optimism and freedom of the era would soon crumble under forces that were somber, poisonous, and all too powerful.
The filmmakers who created People on Sunday — including directors Curt and Robert Siodmak (Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann all had a hand in it too) — would soon decamp to America. From Caligari to Hitler shows how early 20th-century German culture would come to mesh with our own: In so many ways, Hollywood was the house that Weimar built.