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Pacino, De Niro banking on the wrong roles

I thought Francis Ford Coppola was being cranky last fall when he bad-mouthed Al Pacino and Robert De Niro — the stars of Coppola's immortal Godfather films — for taking parts for the money and losing their passion for doing great work. "I met both Pacino and De Niro when they were really on the come," Coppola told GQ magazine. "Now Pacino is very rich, maybe because he never spends any money; he just puts it in his mattress. . . . They all live off the fat of the land."

Coppola was right on the money. The two icons of '70s New Hollywood, heroes to a generation of young actors and filmmakers, have become parodies of themselves, making payday movies and turning in performances that are hollow echoes of the electrically charged work they did in such films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.

88 Minutes, a hapless thriller, stars Pacino as a hotshot forensic psychiatrist stalked by a mysterious killer. The critics have had a field day — when I last looked, it was the lowest-rated movie of the year on Metacritic.com. While the critics pounced on Jon Avnet for his inept pacing — despite its title, the film actually runs for a seemingly endless 107 minutes — it's Pacino who got a real drubbing.

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis zeroed in on what might be Pacino's most glaring failing, his vanity, describing the actor as having "a dusky orange tan that suggests a charbroiled George Hamilton and an elevated poof of hair that appears to have been engineered to put Pacino within vertical range of his female co-stars." Throughout the film, Pacino, who turned 68 last week, is surrounded by nubile young actors who play students lusting after or enamored by him. One of the film's bizarre moments occurs when Pacino and a comely student rush back to his apartment, where, in the midst of their desperate efforts to locate the killer, she takes off her blouse and tosses it on his stairs.

The latest example

It's not as if this film were a rare misstep in an otherwise unblemished career. Pacino has made a string of bad films lately, including the famously awful Gigli, The Recruit and Two for the Money, where he hams it up as an unscrupulous football oddsmaker. If anyone has made more movies for the money than Pacino, it would be De Niro, who has largely abandoned serious dramatic work for a spate of forgettable horror and crime thrillers (try sitting through Hide and Seek or Godsend) and lowbrow comedy high jinks like Meet the Fockers and Analyze That.

De Niro's most recent film, What Just Happened?, an inside-the-movie-biz comedy, got such an abysmal reception at Sundance that it limped out of the festival without a sale (it's expected to close the Cannes Film Festival this year). De Niro cut his longtime ties with the CAA agency in mid April, defecting to Endeavor, inspiring a venomous response purportedly from one CAA agent that was e-mailed all over town. Claiming that De Niro asks for a $1-million production fee on his pictures to help fund his Tribeca empire in New York, it minces few words, saying, "Bobby held us responsible for his own greed, his own avarice and his own megalomania. And it's just like the studios now ask us: Why should we pay this guy — who doesn't open a movie — the payoff to his production company, just so he can add his name as a producer?"

The e-mail makes a subtler point about De Niro's career choices, pointing out that he could've "gone the (Jack) Nicholson route — very selective, very particular, protect the brand — or go out sending himself up in tripe like Analyze This, which made money but turned him into that 'old psycho guy.' ''

A different take

Not every aging actor in Hollywood has to embarrass himself. While Pacino and De Niro grab the dough, working for hacks and nonentities, Nicholson, with rare exception, has picked his spots, doing movies with Martin Scorsese, Alexander Payne and Sean Penn. Clint Eastwood, who's even older than Nicholson, has remained an iconic figure by working with the best director of all — himself. (It has been almost 20 years since he acted in a movie he didn't direct.)

Other older actors, like Gene Hackman and Warren Beatty, have preferred to drop out of sight rather than embarrass themselves. After the debacle of Town and Country, Beatty has devoted himself to raising his kids and giving interviews about Bonnie and Clyde. Michael Caine, who once chased paychecks himself, has turned himself into a respected character actor, doing such classy fare as The Prestige, Children of Men and The Quiet American.

It's not easy being an older actor in Hollywood, where the juiciest roles are written for a narrow age range that pretty much begins with Will Smith and ends with George Clooney. But if Pacino and De Niro are bedeviled by vanity, they are equally guilty of ego-stoked delusion. They still want to be treated like big-league stars, when they are, sadly, past their prime. Seeing Pacino in 88 Minutes evoked memories of Willie Mays playing for the Mets at career's end, stumbling in the outfield he once glided across with effortless abandon.

Cost-benefit analysis

Sadly, Pacino knew exactly what he was getting into making 88 Minutes. Despite the presence of 19 producers on the credit scroll, the real auteur of the film is Avi Lerner, the colorful Israeli producer who has made hundreds of

B movies over the last 20 years, having recently stepped up in budget class — thanks to an influx of money from German film investment funds — from direct-to-video thrillers with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal and horror fare like Shark Attack to star vehicles with Sly Stallone (Rambo) and Bruce Willis (16 Blocks).

Insiders familiar with the project say Lerner paid Pacino $9-million to do the picture, knowing Pacino's presence in a commercial thriller would allow Lerner to offset the cost of the film by selling it overseas. Lerner pocketed $6-million more by selling domestic distribution rights to Sony Pictures.

Pacino declined to talk to me about the film. But Lerner got on the phone to defend the picture. "I like it — it's exactly the movie I wanted it to be," he says. "The critics can say what they want. That's the great thing about America. Everyone gets to have their opinion. It hurts when people call and say the reviews were terrible. But I don't read reviews. I hardly read anything." (Lerner is famous for not reading scripts either, though he insists he read 88 Minutes.)

Lerner says Pacino deserves every cent he paid him. "He's a great guy — on time, professional, hard-working, always willing to do another take."

Lerner has another big bet down on Pacino, who returns this fall in Righteous Kill, a serial killer thriller that teams Pacino with De Niro as New York City cops on the trail of an unsolved murder. With Avnet at the helm again, expectations for quality are low — it has the get-out-your-checkbooks feel of the latest Eagles tour.

Lerner sees it differently. When I asked if the scathing reviews for 88 Minutes could damage the film's commercial chances, he joked: "Hey, it's two different movies, two different sets of 17 producers." Turning serious, he said: "They are still two icons. If you get out of Beverly Hills, to Ventura Boulevard, every person you ask will say — we want to see them together. Just like people did for Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List. And they're even older!"

I don't envy Pacino or De Niro. They're in a bind, having come of age at a time when actors could still get provocative dramas made without everyone having to work for peanuts. Today they're grumpy old men, relegated to raking in loot from cartoonish comedy and generic thrillers.

It's no wonder De Niro's now in the hotel business. He and Pacino should take a tip from Woody Allen, who once joked that he made more money from selling his Manhattan apartment than from all his movies combined. Apartments come and go, but Annie Hall comes along only once in a lifetime.

Pacino, De Niro banking on the wrong roles 05/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 2, 2008 4:30am]

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