Act­ing great in ‘not based on a true story’

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - BRAD OSWALD

IS it un­rea­son­able to ex­pect great­ness from the great? That’s a key ques­tion when con­sid­er­ing a TV movie that stars Os­car win­ners Al Pa­cino and He­len Mir­ren, and was writ­ten and di­rected by ac­claimed play­wright and screen­writer David Mamet.

When tal­ents of such a soar­ing level con­verge, an end prod­uct that’s pretty good isn’t nearly good enough.

And so it is with Phil Spec­tor, the HBO-pro­duced TV-movie drama that pre­mieres Sun­day at 10 p.m. on HBO Canada. It’s a tidily paced story that has some­thing to do with the mur­der trial of a fa­mous mu­sic pro­ducer, and its struc­ture al­lows for­mi­da­ble ac­tors numer­ous op­por­tu­ni­ties to show how good they are at mak­ing scripted drama seem very im­pres­sively dra­matic. But in the end, one is left won­der­ing just ex­actly has been ac­com­plished, and why.

Con­sider the dis­claimer — prob­a­bly the most unique and con­found­ing you’ll ever read — that ap­pears on­screen be­fore Phil Spec­tor be­gins:

“This is a work of fic­tion. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It’s a drama in­spired by ac­tual per­sons in a trial, but it is nei­ther an at­tempt to de­pict the ac­tual per­sons, nor to com­ment upon the trial or its out­come.”

So here’s an­other ques­tion, then: When a movie car­ries the name of a real per­son as its ti­tle, and in­cludes a sto­ry­line that re­flects ac­tual his­tor­i­cal events in that per­son’s life, is a briefly dis­played dis­claimer enough to sep­a­rate the film’s mak­ers from the au­di­ence’s in­evitable as­sump­tion that a movie named af­ter a per­son is ac­tu­ally about that per­son?

It’s a sticky busi­ness, and this un­com­fort­able fic­tional-fact tap dance ul­ti­mately dis­tracts from some fine work on­screen.

Phil Spec­tor is fo­cused on the first of two tri­als the idio­syn­cratic record-in­dus­try pioneer (played by Pa­cino) faced af­ter be­ing charged with the 2003 mur­der of ac­tress and al­leged fame-seeker Lana Clark­son. The woman died of a sin­gle gun­shot wound to the head, from a pis­tol that was fired while the bar­rel was in her mouth.

Po­lice and the pros­e­cu­tion de­ter­mined that Spec­tor, a known ac­cu­mu­la­tor of guns who had been ac­cused in the past of keep­ing women in his home against their will, at gun­point, shot Clark­son. Spec­tor’s claim was that Clark­son, de­pressed and deeply in­tox­i­cated, com­mit­ted sui­cide while he

Star­ring Al Pa­cino, He­len Mir­ren and Jef­frey Tam­bor Sun­day, check list­ings HBO Canada

out of five was in the room.

With his de­fence lawyers scram­bling to come up with a strat­egy that might some­how con­vince a jury to ac­quit their highly un­lik­able client, lead at­tor­ney Bruce Cut­ler (Jef­frey Tam­bor) seeks out Linda Ken­ney Baden (Mir­ren) in the hope she can find an an­gle they can ex­ploit.

At first, she dis­misses the case as a no-hope loser; af­ter meet­ing with Spec­tor in his cav­ernous and creepy man­sion, how­ever, she be­comes in­trigued with the man and be­gins to im­merse her­self in the case.

By the time she’s forced to de­cide whether to put Spec­tor on the stand to tes­tify in his own de­fence, events have un­folded in a man­ner that leaves her as pretty much the only per­son who still has a rea­son­able doubt about his guilt.

Phil Spec­tor is, for its trio of lead ac­tors, a ve­hi­cle that al­lows them to do some really en­ter­tain­ing act­ing. Mir­ren is re­strained but res­o­lute as the lawyer who lit­er­ally makes her­self sick with the amount of ef­fort she com­mits to her task, and Tam­bor, the ever-re­li­able side­man, is rock solid in ev­ery scene he in­hab­its.

Pa­cino is, well, Pa­cino, for all the good and bad that can en­tail. He can be a chewer of scenery at times, but when he holds him­self in check, he’s mag­nif­i­cent. He’s mostly great here, as he so deeply im­merses him­self in the char­ac­ter that it’s ac­tu­ally pos­si­ble to ig­nore the ro­tat­ing sched­ule of ab­surd wigs Spec­tor pa­rades around on a daily ba­sis.

The story doesn’t really go any­where (nei­ther, in the real world, did Spec­tor’s first trial, which ended with a dead­locked jury), but per­haps the point is that it doesn’t have to. The guy who wrote it says the whole thing is made up any­way, and shouldn’t be be­lieved.

Is it worth watch­ing Phil Spec­tor? The view here is that yes, it is. If noth­ing else, it’s a chance to watch great ac­tors do­ing good work. Just keep in mind that any­thing you might think you learn about Phil Spec­tor by tuning in is some­thing its writer/di­rec­tor has em­phat­i­cally claimed he had no in­ten­tion of teach­ing you.


He­len Mir­ren and Pa­cino de­liver fine per­for­mances in the far-from-great Phil Spec­tor, which airs on HBO Sun­day.

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