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"Phil Spector" mixes myth and reality and sends mixed messages

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"Phil Spector" (9 p.m. Sunday, HBO) is a creative experiment by David Mamet gone, not exactly wrong, but maybe gone left.

It's a 'mythological' piece, a note tells us, not a comment on the trial, not using the facts of the trial. Although it's named for the famed music producer, it's really about his lawyer.

When the story begins Lana Clarkson has already been shot at the home of Phil Spector (Al Pacino). His lawyer Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) brings in Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) to help with the defense. Baden initially thinks the case is a dog, that Spector is guilty, and she doesn't want to take Cutler's route of tearing down Clarkson.

From there, the film basically becomes a story of the relationship between Baden and Spector, as she comes to believe he might not be guilty, that there is reasonable doubt, even as she realizes the difficulty of overcoming Spector's eccentric behavior.

We don't learn much about Spector as a person; the film is more interested in Baden's process of gaining justice for Spector. And I've got to give Mamet credit -- the film is pretty interesting despite being light on action or even tension.

Certainly Mamet as director and writer gets some of the credit, but I'm going to give most of the kudos to Mirren. It's amazing how, from role to role, she morphs. Here she's dowdy, savvy and blunt. She brilliantly masters silent moments; you can see by the look on her face when she changes her mind about Spector. The best scene in the film is when Spector walks into the courthouse with a crazy Afro wig and Baden knows she's got to revise her plan. Spector, she knows, can't help himself and I mean that legally and psychologically.

Pacino, on the other hand, was less effective for me. He seems to have Spector's mannerisms and speech patterns down, but it feels like an imitation rather than a transformation.

There has been a lot of criticism about the film's veracity. Mamet's 'This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story’ note at the beginning of the film shows he was expecting some flak. The problem he tries to have it both ways. The end notes of the film tell what happened at the end of the actual trial and the actual retrial. (It gives a whole lot of credit to the real Baden who happens to be a consultant on the film.) I wouldn't say the film undermines the jury system, but it does seem to suggest that Spector might have been misjudged.

Production notes include quotes from Mamet who says he wanted to explore, through Baden's character, the notions of reasonable doubt and prejudice. The film seems to end on the idea that both of those elements are arbitrary; both are bestowed or withheld based on factors like celebrity or appearance. Yet I'm not sure that's only the case for someone like Phil Spector; ordinary folk can have the same issues based on race, income and yes, appearance. As odd as Spector may be, he had money on his side. And as even the film concedes, cash can change the dynamic dramatically.

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About the blogger

Adrienne Johnson Martin would like to have her life turned into an animated cartoon. E-mail Adrienne.