David Mamet's new HBO film Phil Spector begins with a disclaimer stressing that what we are about to watch is a work of fiction. Inspired by real people and real events, yes, but not an attempt to depict what actually happened. We are going to see an alternate version of reclusive oddball music legend Phil Spector, a variation on his first trial for the gruesome 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson. So why bother then? More specifically, why call the movie Phil Spector only to quickly tell us it's ultimately not really about Phil Spector? What follows the disclaimer is a weightless film, both a dodge and a halfhearted apologia.
That said, Al Pacino's performance is mesmerizing. Shuffling around in a series of strange wigs, telling long rambling stories that suddenly arrive at a point like an epiphany, his Phil Spector is an oddly lovable old weirdo. It's not a spot-on impressions, but again this movie insists it's not going for veracity. Crucially this is only a Pacino-y performance in a few scattered bits; mostly all that remains of the familiar actor is his unshakeable growl. Otherwise we are presented with a strange, fully realized character — nervous, addled, living in reference to an old world that no longer exists. That he comes across so pitiable is at the root of what is angering people about the film. Once you begin to feel bad for the guy, you kinda start to believe him when he says he didn't do it. Mamet doesn't make a firm declaration either way, but it's not hard to read a note of sympathy into most scenes.
One person who believes in his innocence is his lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden, a tenacious but tender advocate played with lived-in weariness by Helen Mirren. She's at first put-off by Spector, who is said to have kept various women prisoner in his house at gunpoint. But once she cuts through his peculiarities she sees a misunderstood freak, an often self-sabotaging outlier who has been done wrong by the world. Mamet has Baden won to Spector's cause through both evidence and emotion, and I suppose we're supposed to be won over too. To some extent, anyway. Again, Mamet isn't offering any exact declarations of innocence or guilt, but he clearly wants us to think about the way Spector, and by extension other frequently targeted public figures (ahem, ahem), have been treated by the media. While Mamet doesn't quite make his point successfully, the relationship between Linda and Phil is a pleasure to watch develop, Pacino wrestling his flashy role into humanlike proportions, Mirren giving the straightwoman nuance and personality. How I wish these two actors had picked a less dreary and ultimately slight project to work on together.
The film covers Spector's first murder trial, but we don't see much of the courtroom. We instead spend most of our time in Spector's gloomy mansion or the defense team's poorly lit office space. In typical Mamet fashion, there's a lot of rapid-fire dialogue, and I must say it is nice to be back in Mamet's world of sour bluster. He's like Aaron Sorkin's crankier older brother, both interested in the whiz and flow of process, but Mamet decidedly less in awe. He's also written a few elegantly knotty soliloquies for Pacino, all rattling and ghostly, the past the only place of possibility in Spector's life. But his script often feels like it's talking about the wrong things, like there's something more interesting or more pertinent happening in the next room and we're stuck listening to people jaw on about nothing. Phil Spector ends as arbitrarily it begins, the drama feeling static and adrift. I suppose that may be a problem of history — Spector's first trial ended in a hung jury, not a strong way to finish a story. But there is far more to the Phil Spector story than Mamet addresses, giving the film an uncomfortable smallness. The actors, Mirren especially, sometimes seem like they're chafing against the film's limits, as if made to scrunch down and move economically.
The film's climax is probably the most buzzed-about detail of the movie: Spector sporting an enormous afro wig, looking both silly and creepy as he prepares to testify. The film urges us to see this as an indicator of Spector's tragic self-delusion — he thinks this hair will make the jury think he's less weird, because people back in the day used to have afros and it was fine — but really it mostly serves to highlight the movie's diminutive size. Really? After all that we're just getting the hair? That's it?? It's easy to feel like you're missing something. Really, the film's only tone is atonality. Mamet has created a wall of sound, but the fury is sorely lacking.