Sleepless in Los Angeles

Film - Philip Kerr is impressed by two stars who haven't lost their appetite for acting

For most movie actors, their bovine stupidity, ignorance and lack of imagination are their most valuable assets. How else could they play so many ludicrous (but often extremely lucrative) roles and still manage to promote their films with the unquestioning, single-minded gravity that is required by modern show business? Switch on any television programme dedicated to the latest films and you will see a cavalcade of good- looking morons asseverating the stern, even dangerous challenges that were involved in pretending to be some balsa-wood "character" that belongs, properly, in a Marvel comic book, a novel by Jeffrey Archer, a computer game, or yet another series of Monarch of the Glen.

It was wonderful to see Sir Anthony Hopkins on Omnibus recently, biting the hand that feeds him with the gleeful ferocity of Hannibal Lecter, and implying that most of the films he makes these days are rubbish. Quite right, Sir Anthony. To anyone who saw the laughable poster for Bad Company, co-starring Chris Rock, it was clear that Hopkins thought so little of this particular movie that he didn't even bother to pose for the stills photographer, and the advertising agency producing the poster was obliged to stick Hopkins's grey head atop someone else's rather fitter-looking body. The film was indeed garbage, but who could ever begrudge the man who forked out a million quid for a Welsh mountain another large handful of Hollywood dough?

Let's face it, screen acting is easy in comparison with doing it on stage. Playing Hamlet eight times a week for three months - now, as Sir Anthony might say, that's bloody acting. But sitting in an air-conditioned trailer while your stand-in helps the director and the lighting man to set up the shot: that is just particularism, as if God had chosen a few, rather peculiar people for very special treatment. Actors and, more particularly, movie stars, are the curse of modern movie-making, for how can films make money when the least-informed, most easily substituted participant in the whole process - albeit the one with the nicest teeth - gets paid the lion's share of the money? Greedy, selfish, wicked and lazy, most screen actors have no more appetite for proper acting than they might have for working in a factory, waiting at table, or coal mining. And the greater pity is that more of these overpaid termagants are not found choking on their own vomit on Hollywood sidewalks outside nightclubs.

One star of the screen who has never lost his appetite for acting is the excellent Al Pacino. He personifies movie acting at its best, and there is always, even in a bad film such as Scent of a Woman, for which he won an Academy Award, a depth and intensity to his performance that compels you to keep watching. Insomnia is the second film with Al Pacino I have seen this year; and although it's not quite as good as People I Know, it's still a pretty enjoyable movie.

Directed by Christopher Nolan (of Memento), Insomnia is the story of Will Dormer (Pacino) a veteran LAPD detective who travels to a small Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a 17-year-old girl. During a tense stake-out on a rocky, fog-shrouded beach, a shoot-out ensues and Dormer kills someone. Unfortunately, it is not the murderer and Dormer, already under investigation himself by LA's internal affairs division, feels obliged to cover up his mistake. The only problem is that there's a witness: the murderer himself. Dormer, sleepless in the near- perpetual daylight of the town of Nightmute, finds himself drawn in to a series of compromises with the girl's killer.

If the film does have a fault it is that, right from the very outset, you know Robin Williams is the killer. It's not that Williams does not convince as the psychopath Walter Finch - actually, he's rather good - it's just that, with only two stars in this particular movie firmament, you always know it's him. Having said that, I found the explanation given by Finch as to why he had killed the girl inherently unbelievable. "Because she laughed at me," says Finch. "Have you ever had anyone laugh at you?" Well, of course not, Pacino has never had anyone laugh at him. Not even in Looking for Richard, which was often a little bit risible, especially after The Comic Strip Presents . . . But Robin Williams certainly has had people laughing at him, lots of them, all his life, and it seemed odd that the writers could not have devised a less dissonant, less off-key motive than this for Williams's character.

It comes as a relief to see Williams in a movie without feeling as if one had eaten not just all of the icing on a large birthday cake, but the candles, too. Even so, for anyone who remembers What Dreams May Come, Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Jakob the Liar, Mrs Doubtfire and, most of all, the dulcified emetic that was Patch Adams, the ending of Williams's latest picture will be especially satisfying.

Insomnia (15) is on general release