A correction was made to this review on March 26, 2004.
Having produced pre-trial movies based on the D.C. sniper and Laci Peterson cases, USA goes from morally dubious to merely trashy with this fact-based account of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss — and I mean that in a good way. Smart, fast-paced and deftly shot by director Charles McDougall, this brisk exploration of how far a basic cable network can go without crossing into pay TV territory starts with a bang before petering out a little in the final act — which, given all the banging in between, is easy enough to understand.
Pic was initially titled “Going Down” instead of “Call Me,” which offers a pretty good indication of the project’s intentions. Relying heavily on voiceover narration by Fleiss (as played by Jamie-Lynn DiScala of “The Sopranos”), it’s a glimpse of life in the bought-and-paid-for lane that even includes a timely message — namely, that there will always be someone willing to pander so long as there’s an appetite for the service. Are you listening, FCC?
Cleverly opening with a high-speed preview of what’s to come, Fleiss explains her life became “a blur of dollars, dicks, drugs and deceit,” which sounds a little like MTV’s spring-break programming. It’s also one of those movies that skirts lawsuits by mostly eschewing last names (Charlie Sheen is mentioned, but Corbin Bernsen plays a producer named “Steve”), though labeling a talent agency “ECM” doesn’t detract much from the fun.
Energized by a strong selection of songs from the period, “Call Me” moves quickly into Fleiss’ May-December relationship with sleazoid director Ivan Nagy (a terrific Robert Davi), who quickly pimps her out to Madam Alex (“My Left Foot’s” Brenda Fricker).
A quirky old gal, Alex keeps her high-class prostitution ring humming along by providing info to the cops and tabloids. When she gets arrested, she asks Heidi to keep the business going, but Fleiss quickly takes over and improves on the formula — recruiting better-looking girls and diving into the party circuit. She even innovates, masking her fees on a production budget under “personal trainers.”
With all the free-flowing money and cocaine, though, the good times can’t roll forever. Both Ivan and Alex begin to grow jealous and resentful, triggering the investigation that leads to the “fall” part of the story, as well as the suspense over whether Heidi will disgorge the contents of her little black book.
The voiceover helps smooth out and obscure DiScala’s rough edges as an actress, and the short skirts probably don’t hurt either. A top-notch cast surrounds her, from Davi’s unctuous turn as Nagy to Fricker’s oddball Alex to Saul Rubinek in a small role as Heidi’s pediatrician father, an uncomfortable accomplice in covering her tracks.
Admittedly, there’s a case to be made that the movie helps glamorize prostitution and prettify the sordid proceedings, which is doubtless true, down to the casting. (If DiScala can pass as Fleiss, then please cast Russell Crowe to play the lead in my autobiography.)
Yet as Norman Snider’s script makes clear, there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around — including law-enforcement officials who happily looked the other way before deciding to collect their political points by cracking down on flesh peddlers. It’s really a shell game, though, since as soon as someone gets locked up, the black book inevitably passes elsewhere.
Watching Heidi’s criminal world close in around her evokes a touch of “Goodfellas,” although the choice to protect her clients feels, pardon the expression, a little anticlimactic. Having become a member of the celebrity club, Steve explains, she has no need to sell out and blow the whistle. Even after doing time, he tells her, “A star can always make money.”
“Call Me” doesn’t skimp on flesh or sex, proving total nudity isn’t required to create a film that would otherwise comfortably fit next to the Shannon Tweed collection on Cinemax. As Heidi demonstrates with a client, in fact, sometimes the right atmosphere can be enough to get the job done, allowing imaginative viewers to fill in the “wardrobe malfunction” for themselves.