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.
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 Friday 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 insists 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.
The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar. E-mail questions or comments to patrick.goldstein @latimes.com.