Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear" (at the Beverly Center Cineplex) is his most off-putting picture since his unwatchable political films of the '70s. It's a highly fragmented home movie-like meditation on the impossibility of revitalizing the classics, featuring a barrage of asides on the sound track and the most bizarre cast (coyly unbilled) since Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil."
Godard seems to be sending up himself, his familiar bag of cinematic devices and his passion for aphorisms, but the humor is exceedingly thin and dry. The occasional chuckle or smile he elicits doesn't begin to relieve what is essentially a protracted exercise in tedium. You can respect and even respond to his enduring anarchic spirit and to the fleeting beautiful shot, but it's not nearly enough: His "King Lear" is the work of a certified genius at his most obfuscatingly perverse.
You'd be probably falling into the trap of taking Godard too seriously by trying to provide a Rosetta Stone for all that's said and done. The film's setting is an elegant Swiss hotel on a lake, where Norman Mailer, accompanied by his daughter Kate, is preparing a treatment of "King Lear" as a contemporary Mafia tale--shades of Hecht and MacArthur and Hawks talking about setting down the Borgias in Al Capone's Chicago for "Scarface." But Mailer falls out with his mysterious director, the Professor (Godard), who talks out of the side of his mouth and, like a technological Medusa, wears a wig of patch-cord dreadlocks.
Taking up Mailer's task is a young, spiky haired writer, William Shakespeare Jr. (played by the celebrated theater director Peter Sellars), who's thrashing about for inspiration, which he finds in the aging mafioso Don Learo (Burgess Meredith) and his daughter Cordelia (Molly Ringwald) seated in the hotel dining room. Sure enough, life begins to imitate art in regard to Don Learo and his daughter but only in the most jumbled, sketchy way. Indeed, most of the time everyone just sort of hangs about or wanders around.
You can share Godard's sense of despair in a post-Chernobyl world, a time, he says, "in which movies and art do not exist . . . they have to be reinvented." Time after time Godard has in fact reinvented the cinema, but his heart just doesn't seem in this film. All he can muster is a kind of extended bad joke at the expense of his producer Menahem Golan. There's no fun in watching these famous and unlikely people showing up on the screen, because Godard does little with them. Ringwald mainly looks glum, while Meredith lets us know that he could be a splendid Lear, given half a chance. In addition to Godard acolyte-director Leos Carax, Woody Allen also turns up at the finish as Godard's editor who makes his splices with needle and thread, a mildly humorous effect.
In the guise of the Professor, Godard offers a long treatise on the nature of the image and how it attempts to reconcile different realities. "What is great," he concludes, "is not the image but the emotion it provokes." What "King Lear" (rated PG for complex style and themes) evokes is a great deal of boredom.