Directed by: David Mamet.
Written by: David Mamet.
Starring: Al Pacino (Phil Spector), Helen Mirren (Linda Kenney Baden), Jeffrey Tambor (Bruce Cutler), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mock Prosecutor), Rebecca Pidgeon (Dr. Fallon), John Pirruccello (Nick Stavros), James Tolkan (Judge Fidler), David Aaron Baker (ADA Alan Jackson), Matt Malloy (Dr. Spitz).
Was Phil Spector found guilty of murdering Lana Clarkson because he was in fact guilty, or was it because he is undeniably a rich, famous, “eccentric” gun nut with some possible violent past being charged in a town angry that both O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson were acquitted? Despite the disclaimer that opens David Mamet’s HBO movie Phil Spector that although based on a real case, the movie is in no way a comment on the case or meant to cast doubt on the verdict (cough – bullshit – cough), that is precisely the argument Mamet is making in the film. I don’t know enough about the case to have an informed opinion either way – like all the other “trials of the century”, I mostly avoid coverage of these types of celebrity trials, because almost none of what the media passes off as news is actually news – it’s a bunch of talking head “experts” like Nancy Grace ranting and raving, exploiting the “sensational” crime for ratings, and to be honest it bores me. Actually, a bunch of talking head, ranting and raving, trying to exploit the sensational crime for ratings is a pretty apt description of this movie as well.
Al Pacino has had success with two HBO projects in the past – most notably his brilliant performance as Roy Cohn in Mike Nichols’ epic adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (2003), but also playing infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian in Barry Levinson’s underrated You Don’t Know Jack (2010). And he’s had success working with David Mamet before as well – most notably his Oscar nominated performance as Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross (1993) – although I didn’t hear much good about his work as Shelley “The Machine” Levine in last year’s revival of the same play on Broadway. Playing Spector would seem like Pacino’s dream role – he is so strange, has such a weird voice and does such extreme things, that the role requires an actor to go wildly over the top – which is a specialty of Pacino’s. But like Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock last year, Pacino fails to fully get into the role – the actor tries to nail Spector’s voice, but it’s still undeniably Pacino’s raspy voice, not Spector’s, in the movie. And while going over the top is required, the role never really asks him to do anything but go over the top. Watching the movie, you never get a sense of who Spector really is.
The film is strange, in that it is a courtroom drama that except for one scene near the end of the movie, never steps foot inside a courtroom (there is a surreal “mock trial” at one point though). Essentially, the movie consists of scene after scene of Spector talking to his lawyer Linda Kenney Baden, played by Helen Mirren, who just like Hitchcock last year, has to play second fiddle to a famed actor doing an impression of a famous person, and once again delivering a far superior performance. As a lawyer, you don’t have to believe in your client’s innocence to defend them, but Baden truly does. She believes the prosecution has no real evidence against Spector, and they’re trying him for being strange – a strategy that just may work, because he is in fact very strange.
Mamet, over course, is an extremely talented writer and director. Even in his least successful work – like his play Race that I saw on Broadway two years ago – his dialogue crackles, and is undeniably his. No one writes dialogue quite like David Mamet – you can always tell his work from everyone else’s because of it has a rhythm all its own. But although Phil Spector could easily have been a play – in other words, right in Mamet’s wheelhouse, the dialogue here for the most part lacks Mamet’s usual kick. Mamet, despite his claim otherwise, seems so convinced that Spector should not have been convicted, that he spends most of the movie making that claim – over and over again – and doesn’t concentrate on the words actually being spoken. Worse, the film seems rather scattershot, even in its defense of Spector. He brings up O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson several times, but doesn’t really flush out the comparisons between Spector and his trial and their trials. The film should have given Mamet a chance to show off his dialogue skills, and make some sort of statement about the cult of celebrity – but he doesn’t really do either. I don’t have a problem with him arguing that Spector should not have been found guilty if he truly believes that – but there has to be more to the movie than just that argument.
Overall, Phil Spector ranks as a major disappointment from Mamet and Pacino. Both have done great work in the past, and will likely do great work again in the future. But Mamet seems so convinced of Spector’s innocence that he allows that to take over the entire project – writing a poor role for Pacino, that even the great actor cannot disguise as a good one. What should have at least been a guilty pleasure ends up being a tremendous bore.