'Phil Spector' review: Helen Mirren outshines Al Pacino in David Mamet's so-so HBO movie

phil-spector-helen-mirren-al-pacino-2013-hbo.jpgAl Pacino has the title role in HBO's "Phil Spector," but the movie belongs to Helen Mirren as defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden.

This fictionalized take on music industry legend Spector's first trial for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson is told through Kenney Baden's eyes, becoming the story of a lawyer uncovering reasonable doubts where everyone else sees guilt. That gives writer-director David Mamet's film the unavoidable air of an apology for Spector -- a perhaps overly simplistic reading that the shallow film doesn't do much to counteract.

It's hard to say if the willful exclusion of some of the more damning evidence against Spector is a product of a sympathetic filmmaker or simply in keeping with a story told from Kenney Baden's point of view. But Mamet does at least one thing to create reasonable doubt that his goal was to misinform viewers: The film opens with the odd but telling disclaimer that what we're about to see "is a work of fiction" and "not based on a true story." "It is 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."

That places "Spector" squarely in the grey zone of fictional non-fiction and makes it something of a twisted companion piece to the movie that won Mirren an Oscar: Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan's "The Queen," which served up a credible but purely speculative portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. "Spector" is pure speculation as well, despite the use of real names, events and stray documented details.

The argument against Mamet's approach is that it's not very revealing when it comes to larger themes or character study and remains fairly flat as drama throughout its brief 90-minute running time.

Even as an acting showcase, the results are mixed. Mirren invests Kenney Baden with intelligence and determination -- she's initially skeptical to even take the case, believing that Spector could never receive a fair trial, but then becomes his most dogged advocate -- and elevates an otherwise thinly sketched character simply by playing the role. Pacino is on shakier ground as the eccentric megalomaniac, which plays to his worst and most easily parodied tendencies -- shouting, scenery-chewing and an overall cartoonish appearance. It's a disappointment coming after the excellent and far more nuanced work he's done with HBO in the past in "Angels in America" and "You Don't Know Jack."

Those films were rich and expansive explorations of compelling social issues, while Mamet seems invested in creating a minimalist two-character chamber piece out of dubious subject matter. He might as well have scrapped the real names entirely and simply called his leads Defense Attorney and Music Producer. In place of provocative themes, Mamet offers repetitive and tiresome references to misunderstood genius, Spector's image as a freak, a suspect's right to presumed innocence, and the general public's mixture of fascination and jealousy with celebrity.

While it's never as silly or artless as HBO's overpraised "Game Change," "Spector" is low-stakes, procedure-oriented and deliberately claustrophobic, lacking in the sort of sharply pointed dialogue one may expect from Mamet. A stronger film could have inspired questions about the legal system, celebrity or the actual personalities involved in this case. The only question "Phil Spector" inspires is, "What's the point?"
Photo/Video credit: HBO
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