“Al Pacino is Phil Spector” is a tough marketing pitch to resist, but the teaming of the much-honored Pacino, Helen Mirren and writer-director David Mamet can barely obscure that this crime-based story is essentially a Lifetime movie gussied up with an Oscar pedigree and F-bombs. Described in a mealy-mouthed disclaimer as “a work of fiction … not based on a true story,” it’s a movie about lawyers that appears to have lawyered-up in its own right. “Phil Spector” is watchable, but given the lofty expectations raised by HBO movies, it’s also the cinematic equivalent of a bad hair day.
Mamet has chosen to dispense with any backstory about Spector, other than Spector’s musings and that of his new lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren), who is enlisted by the beleaguered defense attorney Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) to handle his case. As such, we only see the crazy, outlandish, gun-obsessed version, and have a hard time getting any glimpse of the musical genius beneath the bizarre surface.
Despite Spector’s eccentricity, Baden begins to fervently believe in his innocence regarding the shooting of actress Lana Clarkson, who, Spector argues, put a gun in her own mouth and, when he screamed to stop, inadvertently pulled the trigger.
But how can one win acquittal of someone so out there that the jury, we’re told, will see as “a murderer and a freak.” Mamet thus takes an unexpectedly sympathetic turn toward Spector, presenting him as an eccentric — one given to long, flowering soliloquies and reminiscing about the past, but not a monster.
As such, this is really Baden’s story, even if Pacino has the much showier role. Yet while the actor has a history of portraying over-the-top, larger-than-life historical figures such as Roy Cohn (“Angels in America”) and Jack Kevorkian (“You Don’t Know Jack”) for HBO alone, his mumbling, grotesque take on Spector is something closer to Big Boy Caprice, the cartoonish gangster he played in “Dick Tracy.”
For her part, Mirren can only do so much with a thinly drawn role as Spector’s lawyer — her claim to the moral high ground tethered entirely to Baden’s reluctance, despite Cutler’s urging, to put the victim on trial — and other than Tambor, nobody else even registers, including Chiwetel Ejiofor in a throwaway part as an attorney helping prep for trial.
Mostly, though, it’s almost impossible to get past the notion of presenting “Phil Spector” as “fiction,” which — given the meticulous recreation of events, down to the music producer’s crazy wigs — sounds more like an after-the-fact fear of defamation lawsuits than anything else. Even if the goal is a larger truth, it fosters a perception that reality is inconvenient.
Although they’re seldom big ratings grabbers, HBO’s movies serve a purpose by helping adorn the channel in prestige, occupying a creative sweet spot between what remains of original cable movies and a studio business perceived as having abandoned character-driven theatricals.
Award voters might still be bedazzled by the mere presence of Pacino and Mirren mouthing Mamet’s rat-a-tat exchanges. If so, they’d hardly be the first jury to fall for a thin case wrapped in a flashy exterior and a wall of sound.