At the beginning of David Mamet’s film “Phil Spector” (premiering on HBO Sunday night), some boilerplate text cautions viewers against watching it too literally. That means you’re supposed to put away the smartphone and stop with the Wikipedia fact-checks you usually perform while watching anything based on a true story.
Though it is obviously based on the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson at the legendary record producer’s home in 2003 — he was convicted of second-degree murder six years later and is serving a prison sentence — “Phil Spector” detaches itself from movie-of-the-week terrritory so that it may more artfully drift into something more imaginative.
Something more like a play, perhaps, which is Mamet’s natural habitat. “Phil Spector” is a wordy and unappealingly clinical character sketch in which Spector (Al Pacino) and his resourceful defense attorney, Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), nearly come to an understanding about the insurmountable task in front of them, which is to convince a jury that the gunshot was self-inflicted. (The first trial ended in a hung jury; Baden did not represent Spector during the second trial.)
It’s clear that Mamet, who wrote as well as directed “Phil Spector,” sees some dark allegories worth exploring in this pitiful case, or at least plenty to chew on: Is this a story about the client-attorney relationship, like something out of Janet Malcolm’s long-form journalism? Is it a rumination on fame and psychosis? Is it just a protracted explanation of Spector’s decision to wear a series of fright wigs to his court appearances? (Is it a very weird episode of “Law & Order”?)
“Phil Spector” doesn’t give us much to talk about or applaud. Pacino’s performance verges on the many Pacino parodies already out there. Having played Roy Cohn in HBO’s “Angels in America” as well as Jack Kevorkian in the network’s “You Don’t Know Jack”, the actor is beginning to meet himself coming around HBO’s corner, reducing his performances to the same two or three rant-filled notes. During “Phil Spector,” you never once forget that you’re watching Pacino’s take on Spector, when, ideally, you should at some point believe you’re watching Spector himself.
And although it’s difficult to miscast Mirren, it certainly happened here. Linda Kenney Baden arrives late to the defense team while fighting off pneumonia, swigging cough syrup and moving through the drama as if through fog. Mirren gets the misery part of it correct while searching in vain for the right American accent and misreading the tough-broad style in which Mamet has fashioned the character. Mirren stepped in at the last minute to play the part, replacing an ailing Bette Midler. Brownie points for her, then, but once you know this fact, you’ll spend the entire movie wishing Midler had been able to do it.
From their first encounter, Spector and Baden are engaged in a discursive, sparkless back-and-forth straight out of Mamet’s imagination. Kenney Baden comes to the producer’s bizarre mansion asking about his innocence — “Did you kill that woman?” — and, in response, he puts the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” on the turntable and announces “I put black America in the white home!”
At other times, “Phil Spector” behaves less like a thesis on American pop culture or a saga of celebrity implosion and more like the linear, legal potboiler that a viewer might expect, as Kenney Baden fixates on recreating splatter trajectories and preps Spector for his testimony on the witness stand. When Spector arrives wearing the giant blond afro wig — the only salient detail anyone remembers from this unremarkable chapter in the history of Hollywood court cases — Kenney Baden realizes that her client is irretrievable from his own reality. He offers her a short sermon on how his hairstyle is a fitting and relevant homage to Jimi Hendrix.
Mamet’s writing is intact; in places, “Phil Spector” reflects his precision and grit. Yet it is difficult to figure out what about Spector’s case is interesting enough to merit this level of interpretive attention. As Mirren’s character explains to her boss (Jeffrey Tambor), the case cannot be won on Spector’s celebrity alone. To make her point, she calls over a young attorney and (handily) pulls a yellow spindle adapter for a 45-rpm single from her purse and asks him to identify it. He can’t. Then she pulls a 45-rpm single from her purse (she came prepared!), inserts the plastic adapter into the hole and asks him again what it is. He guesses that it’s a disk for an early version of the computer.
Perhaps what we’re watching, then, is a movie about the inevitable decline of all famous people who outlive their zenith. What never comes across is why the Spector case — even in this retelling — deserves another 90 minutes of our time and energy. Mamet’s take seems only peripherally interested in whetherSpector was guilty and never intended to be that kind of movie anyhow. “Phil Spector” seems to lean toward innocence while handing out a life sentence to its subject for crimes of fame.
(92 minutes) airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO, with encores.