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At the outset of HBO's "Phil Spector," we're told the film is A work of fiction. It’s not “based on a true story.”
That's Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Mamet's way of telling us he's doing exactly what he wants to do in telling the story of the Phil Spector murder trial. The cynic in me says it's a way to stave off the lawyers and critics who might accuse him of being inaccurate.
But let's take Mamet at his word and judge this film purely as a piece of entertainment.
At the outset of the movie actress Lana Clarkson is dead from a gunshot wound to the head in Spector's house. The music producer is charged with her murder and awaiting trial. He claims the woman was disturbed and shot herself with one of his many guns in the house.
Attorney Linda Kenney Baden, played by Helen Mirren, is brought in to help with the case. In one of the film's many shortcuts, she goes from being sure Spector is guilty to being completely on his side after one bizarre meeting with the man.
Al Pacino has the rather daunting task of playing Spector - a man whose mythology would be hard for any actor to portray without going way over the top, as Pacino is wont to do anyway. The wigs alone are tough to overcome. But Pacino, in one of his better performances in years, creates a fascinating character out of Spector - unstable, eccentric, and maybe even dangerous. His halting manner of speech and bug-eyed looks convey a man trapped in his idiosyncrasies, rather than liberated by them.
Mirren is terrific, too, as she works through a variety of theories to try and prove Spector's possible innocence to a jury that may be ready to convict him before the trial begins.
Mamet's dialogue is nimble and his direction sweeping and occasionally jarring. But even though he gives himself artistic license, he doesn't do nearly enough with the privilege. He even keeps us out of the court room proceedings so he's not tied down to the facts of the case.
We never truly get inside Spector's head. There's never a scene where we see Spector on his own. We're always experiencing him through someone else - be it another character or a taped interview. I'm not bothered that the film doesn't delve into Spector's career, but more of a study of what makes him tick would have been interesting - I mean, since we're making this stuff up anyway.
The movie also ends abruptly - so much so that I paused it for a bathroom break, came back to push Play, and the end titles started rolling. I rarely say this, but this movie needed to be about half an hour longer to flesh out these characters and their relationships more to be effective.
What "Phil Spector" does best is build a case for reasonable doubt for the defendant. A quick Internet search will reveal what happened to the music icon in real life, but Mamet is after something other than the facts. Unfortunately, it's never entirely clear what that is.
EPPLER'S RATING: * * *
Out of five stars
Playing on HBO all month