He’s had an advantageous working relationship with star Al Pacino on both “Scarface” and “Carlito’s Way.” In his hands, the film could have been a “King Lear”-level tragedy about a sports legend whose singular focus led to his downfall.
Instead what viewers get is director Barry Levinson’s well-intended but paroxysmal journey into legendary college football coach Joe Paterno’s fall from grace, fired by Penn State for his role in the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal.
Unsure if he wants to focus more on Paterno or newspaper journalist Sara Ganim — the reporter who broke the Sandusky story — Levinson constantly switches his gaze from one to the other. Ganim’s role as a consultant on the film may have mucked up the process even more. The end result is a film that clumsily tries to sympathize with Paterno instead of the young boys he chose to ignore until it was too late.
This is the third time Levinson and Pacino have teamed up for HBO to spin real-life antihero tales. The first time earned Pacino an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his performance as well-known euthanasia practitioner Jack Kevorkian in “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010).
Pumped by all the buzz that small-screen flick received, Levinson and Pacino reconnected for “Phil Spector” (2013). The latter focused on the odd relationship between the music producer and his lawyer Jennifer Lee Barringer (Helen Mirren) while he was on trial for murder.
But where Pacino slipped into both portrayals with the help of wigs and wacky accents, he is less at ease with his take on Joe Pa, delivering a performance of a man just as uneven as the film it is named after.
In a few inspired scenes, Pacino is stunningly convincing as a shuffling Paterno roaming around the house in pajamas trying unsuccessfully to control his fate. He barks at his family and advisors to stop talking about him like he’s not there, and in a rare moment of humor shouts “put me in the ground.” In a game against Nebraska, the first match up that occurred after the university pink-slipped Paterno, he is masterfully shown grappling with the rage of his exclusion and his guilt and shame all without dialogue.
In spite of these flashes of brilliance, or maybe because of them, Pacino can’t help being Pacino, and there are times when he is indistinguishable from the character. Unfortunately, no amount of makeup or prosthetic noses can hold Pacino back for long, and his growl is so loud sometimes that it overpowers the vision of the wounded god Paterno became.
Riley Keough, Kathy Baker and Annie Parisse deliver strong performances as Ganim, Joe’s wife, Sue, and his daughter Mary Kay respectively. Not so coincidentally, all three women also serve as rare voices of reason in a testosterone-induced world of college sports and perfect records.
But in the end, it’s all about Pacino’s Paterno. Did Joe Pa know about the sins of his former defensive coordinator but turn a blind eye because it was more convenient? Levinson and his screenwriters certainly imply as much in both subtle and not so subtle ways. They also make it clear that a frightening majority of Penn State students and fans cared more about the football team and Paterno’s legacy than the victims themselves.
Regardless, the creative partnership between Pacino and Levinson may well have run its course. The third time is only the charm if it scores a touchdown, but this one ultimately fumbles.