Kario Salem’s “The Rat Pack” script suggests that the nonstop bachelor party of Sinatra, Martin and Davis wasn’t fun and games at all: A darker side permeated three of America’s most popular entertainers as the ’50s gave way to the ’60s, particularly after Frank Sinatra attempted to join the Kennedy camp when it moved from Massachusetts to the White House. The Kennedy-Sinatra relationship is the impetus in this telling, not the public lives of the entertainers who made “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Robin and the Seven Hoods” and “Sergeants 3.” The concept behind HBO’s advertising tagline — “You’ve gotta love livin’, baby” — not to mention the concept most Americans probably would want to see, takes a back seat throughout.
As with the real group, “The Rat Pack” sinks or swims depending on Sinatra, and Ray Liotta has none of the Chairman of the Board’s swagger, confidence or, most significant, charisma. Going in, the filmmakers had to know the pic depended on the actors’ credibility, yet Liotta never crosses the line into believability. Worse yet, William Peterson’s wooden and at times schlubby John F. Kennedy is all wrong, striking the unlikeliest of tone in his character and dialogue. There’s nothing presidential about him.
Joe Mantegna and Don Cheadle demonstrate how to assimilate a popular star’s mannerisms, speech and inner turmoil without turning to the tricks of an impressionist.
Mantegna glides into the Dean Martin role, playing the capo with admirable restraint. Cheadle’s Sammy Davis Jr. is a wonderfully nuanced perf with a unique blend of hipness, tolerance and rage; his admiration and love for Frank, supposedly a common element for all the characters, speaks loudest and most directly through body language.
But the $9.6 million biopic, shot in 33 days, puts almost all the kidding aside, depicting organized meetings and confrontations as the pivotal events in these men’s lives. Everything was arranged, from the sexual liaisons to mob gatherings, and nothing organic ever developed through casual conversation.
After a curious and droll opening centering on the backstage preparations for a concert, a 74-year-old Sinatra muses, “I miss my guys,” and suddenly steps back in time. Newspaper headlines provide the key backdrop: Sinatra’s breakup with Ava Gardner and Oscar win for “From Here to Eternity”; Davis’ car crash; Martin’s split from Jerry Lewis; mob bosses under investigation; and Kennedy putting his hat in the ring.
Sinatra quickly decides to support Kennedy and accepts an invitation to a dinner that includes Peter Lawford (Angus Mcfayden), with whom he has been feuding, in order to get in with Lawford’s wife, Pat (Phyllis Lyons), who is JFK’s sister.
Dino is the Vegas party animal beholden to no one except possibly Frank; Davis is back onstage, indebted to Frank; and Frank holds court, no matter where he may be and no matter who he is with. Because of Sinatra, politicians, mobsters, actors and singers are often in the same room at the same time.
Soon after Sinatra supplies some R&R and mob assistance for JFK, Kennedy patriarch Joe (Dan O’Herlihy) starts to put the brakes on the pair’s association, attempting to sever Sinatra’s relationships with anyone deemed shady, whether a Communist sympathizer or nightclub owner. Eventually John Kennedy cuts his ties to Sinatra, which, like everything else that happens in these two hours, infuriates Frank.
Davis’ interracial relationship with May Britt, played delightfully with Scandinavian cool by Megan Dodds, supplies fodder for pic’s most bizarre moment — a dream sequence in which Davis confronts some white supremacists with a rousing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — and some of the picture’s most touching drama.
Lawford is depicted as little more than a bag holder, first for the Kennedys and then for Sinatra, and as is the wont of virtually everyone except Martin, every run-in prompts a heated discussion. Joey Bishop (Bobby Slayton) is little more than a throwaway role. Zeljko Ivanek plays Bobby Kennedy as a slimy observer waiting for his chance to grab headlines as the attorney general who goes after Sinatra’s guys; Robert Miranda plays Momo Giancana by the book: brooding, with a love of silence.
Director Rob Cohen attempts to bring extra layers to each scene but he winds up handcuffed by the script, particularly in the Sinatra scenes. If Sinatra isn’t shown in a one-on-one battle, he’s seen exerting his hold on a circle of entertainers. Cohen’s shot selection does a lot with a little in showing Davis’ love for Britt, and Martin as a homebody in love with his wife and children.
The music for which Sinatra, Martin and Davis are known is used sporadically yet effectively, and even if the singing isn’t on a par with the originals, the musical performances do at least have a live urgency to them. Stand-in singers (Michael Dees voices Sinatra for Liotta) are in line with the actors’ spoken vocals, and Mantegna’s Martin, in speech and song, is the closest to the real deal. Buoyant arrangements of Sinatra classics help segue each scene to the next, the textures of Nelson Riddle abundant at every turn.
Sets of the Palm Springs and Beverly Hills homes and Las Vegas locales are all spot-on, especially Martin’s slightly space-age home. Historical accuracy is less crucial than the feeling, and production designer Hilda Stark Manos’ sets might well be “Rat Pack’s” most consistent element.
But there’s still a lot of room left for a picture about these men as entertainers. For the period it chose to depict, “Rat Pack” drops the ball by ending the vidpic as the real-life Rat Pack was taking hold: “Robin and the Seven Hoods” was about to be released; Sinatra was forming Reprise Records, which would lead to his biggest hit, “Strangers in the Night”; Martin would soon be the highest-paid entertainer in America; and Davis would be known as one of the country’s greatest showmen.
Rather than the historically inaccurate coda — Sinatra recording “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” at Capitol Studios, which he did in 1958, not after the deaths of Kennedy and Monroe — the filmmakers should’ve turned to “The Best Is Yet to Come.” In terms of an accurate Rat Pack document, it certainly would ring (a-ding) true.