Given the off-the-charts camp factor in the tantalizing prospect of Lindsay Lohan playing Elizabeth Taylor, Lifetime might prize descriptions of “Liz & Dick” as “trashy” or “awful.” So the network might harbor mixed emotions in reading that the movie about Taylor and her tumultuous romance with Richard Burton is actually pretty good, all things considered, despite an inevitably episodic nature and one glaringly unnecessary device. Such fact-based TV movies are rare these days, but this post-Thanksgiving telecast is just hammy enough to generate numbers rivaling the hordes of paparazzi that dogged the not-always-happy couple.
The movie’s secret weapon, it turns out, isn’t Lohan at all, but rather New Zealander Grant Bowler (barely recognizable from a small part on “True Blood”) as the dashing, often-drunken Burton, who classes up the movie in much the way Burton’s classically trained Shakespearean actor played off Taylor’s lifelong movie star.
Directed by Lloyd Kramer from a script by Christopher Monger, the narrative is framed, somewhat unfortunately, by having the two speak directly to the camera against a stark black backdrop, in what approximates a kind of posthumous interview about their relationship. While it offers another means of getting inside their heads, it has a certain beyond-the-grave quality — exalting their epic love, yes, but feeling too much like something from one of the Mitch Albom movies Kramer helmed.
“I fell for you the moment I saw you,” Burton tells her (and Bowler has the rich Welsh baritone down pat), one of several lines of dialogue — including “My heart is broken, and you have the smashed pieces” — seemingly calibrated to appeal both to those willing to embrace the romance and those eager to approach the movie like a screwball comedy.
The first 30 minutes or so are devoted, appropriately, to the beginning of their torrid affair on the set of “Cleopatra,” where the two go a bit too quickly from squabbling to screwing, essentially under the noses of their respective spouses. In this case, the adage, “If the trailer’s rocking, don’t come knocking,” more than applies.
After that, Liz and Dick engage in epic fights, spend money like drunken sailors, take refuge from the prying press by living on a yacht, and struggle through Burton’s bouts of melancholy over failing to win Oscars, including when she earned her second for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” while he was overlooked.
OK, so there’s plenty of fun to be manufactured watching the movie — and even drinking games, like taking a swig every time a doctor or associate delivers bad news. Still, Bowler is quite good as Burton, and Lohan certainly is adequate, barring a few awkward moments, thanks largely to the fabulous frocks and makeup (courtesy of Salvador Perez and Eryn Krueger Mekash, respectively) she gets to model.
Moreover, there is something strangely fascinating about a couple so madly hot for each other as to be unable to find equilibrium or peace, as well as how the Taylor-Burton pairing helped pave the way for a more aggressive (and intrusive) breed of celebrity journalism. The movie also benefits from the revelation about Taylor saving Burton’s love letters long after his death, which came more than a quarter-century before hers.
In a sense, the producers shrewdly used Lohan — no stranger to the tabloids herself — as a publicity multiplier, but they needn’t have worried.
Because while “Liz & Dick” is wobbly at times, the movie ultimately stands on its own.