Al Pacino is still at it. At 74, four decades after the first two Godfather films, and more than a decade since his last starring role in even a minor hit (2003’s The Recruit), he remains eager for work. Any job that requires his surly majesty, in movies of modest budgets or minimal artistry, is an offer he can’t refuse. Last year he played a deranged version of himself, wandering off into the faux-reality of his most famous characters, in the Adam Sandler comedy Jack and Jill. Al Pacino and Adam Sandler! Michael Corleone would give them both the fatal kiss of dismissal.
Yet Pacino’s unflagging search for good roles makes him an endearing figure, especially at the Venice Film Festival, where three years ago he presented his finest recent work. Wilde Salome is a documentary of his stage production of the Oscar Wilde play (starring Jessica Chastain, in her first film work, as Salome), with charming side trips into Wilde’s biography. On opening night, the star charmed the audience with an impromptu monologue, some of it in Italian. The film never secured a theatrical release and, despite Pacino’s lingering star quality, it never played another film festival.
Venice, which is loyal to its favorite directors and stars, has brought Pacino back for a double feature tonight: Barry Levinson’s The Humbling and David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn. Each of his directors could use a hit, even a succès d’estime, as much as their star: Levinson’s last film in theaters, The Bay, grossed a total of $30,668; and Green’s Joe, which premiered at Venice last year, fell short of $400,000. A generation apart, the filmmakers deserve a break, especially when teaming with the bantam battler Pacino.
“Crazy emperors sort of work for me,” Pacino said about his Herod in Wilde Salome. That’s the role he’s played forever — either raging violently or sinking into monarchial despair — and gets to reprise in tonight’s films. In Green’s film he’s A.J. Manglehorn, a locksmith still pining over an affair he had a decade earlier with a woman named Clara; he still writes daily letters to his lost love. That leaves him little emotional energy to expend on his businessman son (Chris Messina), his tanning-salon friend (Harmony Korine) or the nice lady at the bank (Holly Hunter) who’s interested in pursuing a relationship but whose flirtation skills have rusted over: her conversation ascends quickly from “I like your shirt” to “Let’s take a bath together.”
Each of the main supporting character gets two big scenes — one edgy, one friendly — while Manglehorn lavishes what’s left of his love on his cat Fanny and his granddaughter Kylie (Skylar Gasper). This pensive, logy movie veers occasionally into magic realism: a couple (Tim Curry and Monica Lewis) singing the hymn “Love Lifted Me” when they meet at the bank; a mime who offers Manglehorn a special key to the film’s resolution. The rest, with Pacino in pensive mode as a deposed king of the heart, never reaches the tenderness or intensity of Green’s work with Nicolas Cage in Joe.
(READ: Corliss on Joe at the 2013 Venice Film Festival)
In The Humbling, based on Philip Roth’s 2009 novella, he’s Simon Axler, once among the greatest stars of the classical stage, who has lost his mojo, finding himself incapable of a powerful or even coherent performance, and resolved to end the fear and shame by killing himself. As Simon says in the book, “Suicide is the role you write for yourself. You inhabit it and you act it. All carefully staged — where they will find you and how they will find you. But one performance only.” One thinks of Robin Williams, who staged his last great scene with his death earlier this month.
(READ: TIME’s cover story on Robin Williams’ life and death)
Levinson, who directed Williams in Good Morning Vietnam, Toys and Man of the Year, also directed Pacino as Jack Kevorkian — the doctor who allowed his patients to achieve a calming form of suicide — in the 2010 TV movie You Don’t Know Jack. Simon could have used Kevorkian, since he is incapable of pulling off even his own last curtain call. He has kept a shotgun in his Connecticut retreat, even though “I’m not a gun person,” as a tribute to Hemingway. Yet when the big moment comes, he can’t quite reach the trigger. (“Hemingway must have had longer arms.”) The failure sends him to a psychiatric residence, where a woman (Nina Arianda) whose husband sexually violated their eight-year-old daughter begs Simon to shoot the brute dead. Can a man who botched his own death be persuaded to kill someone else?
The Humbling could pass as a love story: Simon has a twilight affair with Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), a woman half his age whose actor parents (Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya) were once Simon’s close friends. Pegeen is taking a break from 17 years as a lesbian to act out her childhood crush on Simon, but her adventurous sexual appetite abrades against Simon’s erotic conservatism.
But this is a movie less about the death of love and more in love with death. Having the 72-year-old Levinson directing a screen adaptation by the 83-yar-old Buck Henry of a novel that Roth published when he was 78 almost guarantees an old man’s meditation on dying as the final act in life’s tragicomedy. Will it be played the second time as farce or as great escape? Simon’s affair with Pegeen was a test to determine if life is worth living. Like Michael Keaton’s desperate, aging actor Riggan Thomson in Birdman, which opened the Venice festival on Wed. and is playing at Telluride this weekend, Simon makes his ultimate grand gestures on the Broadway stage — Riggin as a Raymond Carver character, Simon as King Lear.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Birdman)
With mixed results, Levinson juggles the awful and the amusing aspects of Simon’s life; The Humbling shifts without warning from tales of horror to deadpan comedy, until the ending, when Pacino, the street kid who loves Shakespeare, gets to play the Bard’s maddest monarch and achieves a trace of tragic grandeur. In the unlikely event that this Al Pacino double bill plays at a theater near you, see both films, and decide which Al sinks into your soul.