John Turturro and Mary-Louise Parker anchor another worthy HBO movie, “Sugartime,” which treats the real-life love affair between gangster Sam Giancana and songster Phyllis McGuire, of the wholesome McGuire Sisters. Pic could stand more details about the relationship, however. Martyn Burke’s script is suggestive when it needs to be explicit, and obvious when covering well-trod ground. Director John N. Smith (“The Boys of St. Vincent,””Dangerous Minds”) also keeps viewers at a distance.
Based on a book by the FBI agent who tracked Giancana, the thrust of the timeless story is clear: Big man loses everything for love. Gangster milieu of Chicago and Las Vegas is familiar, and teasing references to Giancana’s ties with the Kennedys and Fidel Castro, plus his friendship with Frank Sinatra, will ring bells.
But we stay on the surface of the quirky — and ultimately ironic — union between ugly mob boss and America’s sweetheart. Granted, no one knows why it worked.
On the one hand, she’s a feisty but forgiving moll; on the other, she gets Sammy to do contortions around her little finger. The relationship destroyed both careers, yet pic suggests she might have been part spider. Impeccable Turturro conjures up Jerry Lewis. His ferretlike mobster is a gawky kid — paranoid, eccentric and, of course, volatile.
When two opposites come together, there’s usually more of an emotional payoff; here it’s hard to champion the pairing or identify with either individual. The awkwardness of the courtship seeps into the static early scenes.
Jealous of her former b.f. Dan Rowan, Sammy gets the CIA to wiretap the comedian. After Giancana builds her a Venice-themed club in the Chicago suburbs, the FBI decides to get to Giancana by forcing Phyllis to testify before a grand jury.[? Regardless of whether she squeals, he’s arrested on a legal technicality. Incidentally, legal eagles may wonder why, if granted total immunity, he didn’t just perjure himself? ]
Dialogue isn’t always on point, which suggests Burke sticks too close to what the FBI learned through surveillance. Scene when the widower brings Phyllis home to meet his daughters is stock stuff, as is a fork in the hand for skimming and a shotgun execution.
Smith uses popular ditties performed by the McGuire Sisters to maximum effect by inter-cutting them with mob activities. Parker appears uncomfortable lip-synching all but one of the perfs, and supporting players don’t lend much memorable texture. Period production (’60s and early ’70s) is good enough. More on what held the couple together would round out the picture.