Sunday, March 24, 2013


(US - 2013)

Written and directed by David Mamet.  Cast: Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Jeffrey Tambor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rebecca Pidgeon, John Pirruccello, James Tolkan, David Aaron Baker, Matt Malloy, Jack Wallace, Matthew Rauch, Meghan Marx. (Unrated, 91 mins)

What exactly was David Mamet's point in making this film?  It's hard to screw up an account of the Phil Spector murder trial, especially with a cast headed by Oscar winners Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, but with rare exception, writer-director Mamet makes one bad decision after another, starting with the opening disclaimer that the film is a work of fiction and not "based on a true story."  The legendary Wall of Sound record producer Phil Spector is currently serving a 19 years-to-life sentence, convicted in the 2003 murder of D-list actress Lana Clarkson, but regardless of how you may feel about his guilt or innocence, one thing is certain:  Mamet clearly thinks he's not guilty, and seems so intent on making Spector a Mumia Abu-Jamal or West Memphis Three for baby boomers that you'll wonder why the film isn't called FREE PHIL SPECTOR. 

Opening in 2007, just before Spector's first trial, famed John Gotti attorney Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) has a huge caseload and brings in pneumonia-stricken Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) to help out for a bit, which soon leads to her taking over the defense for Spector (Pacino).  Spector, an eccentric with a penchant for waving guns around, be it in a record studio or to keep terrified women captive at his house, claims Clarkson (Meghan Marx) was goofing around with one of his guns and accidentally shot herself through the mouth.  Gradually, despite his general bizarre nature and his love of distractingly freaky wigs, Spector wins over Baden, starting with what's probably the best scene in the film:  Pacino's introduction as Baden arrives at Spector's castle-like mansion Alhambra and Mamet lets the camera snake through the many rooms of this museum of Spector's life while Pacino gets an epic monologue.  It's all downhill from there, as Mamet turns PHIL SPECTOR into one of the very few courtroom dramas with no courtroom scenes, other than mock practice ones.  The film ends with the opening of Spector's first trial, with the rest of the story (a mistrial, a second trial, and a conviction) covered in an onscreen post-script.

Mamet's directed some fine films (HOUSE OF GAMES, THE SPANISH PRISONER) and written some great ones (THE VERDICT, THE UNTOUCHABLES, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS), but his signature rapid-fire dialogue sounds forced and over-rehearsed here, and from the directing end, he's going for a vintage kinetic Martin Scorsese feel a lot of the time--as well-done as it is, even the aforementioned tour through Spector's house feels like something Scorsese would do.  There's also heavy use of Spector's music, which Scorsese has used in his films, and though Mamet can't be faulted for using something like the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," it can't help but evoke memories of Scorsese's MEAN STREETS even if Mamet wasn't going out of his way to make PHIL SPECTOR look and feel overtly Scorsesian.  Pacino, Mirren, and Tambor are undeniably well-cast, though Mirren probably comes off best.  Pacino is granted a little bit of leeway to do his bellowing Pacino thing, but Mamet sabotages his best bit of acting with some distracting handheld that ruins the scene. Elsewhere, his Spector mannerisms seem to be channeling Jeff Goldblum.  We don't learn enough about Spector or Baden to care about either of them, but it's obvious Mamet wasn't interested in making a film with characters and arcs and a beginning, a middle, or an end.  He just wanted the world to know that he thinks Spector is innocent, or at the very least, was scapegoated for things like the O.J. verdict.  If he wants to make that film, then fine--make a documentary and present your case.  Don't waste Pacino and Mirren in the process.  There's a fascinating film to be made of this story, but the botched PHIL SPECTOR, which really feels truncated and incomplete at just 90 minutes, isn't the one.

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