How brave of an actor is Al Pacino? Brave enough to fling himself into the bizarre title character of HBO's colorful biopic "Phil Spector," and don a mountainous wig that makes Marge Simpson's tower of follicles seem modest in comparison.
Yes, it's difficult to get past the full-blown crazy hair, but really, that's just one aspect of the outlandish world that Pacino, along with Helen Mirren and acclaimed writer David Mamet, embrace during this fascinating character study.
Pacino plays Spector, the infamous music icon now serving a prison sentence for the 2003 murder of B-movie actor Lana Clarkson in his Alhambra mansion. And he plays him with the kind of gusto and commitment you expect from one of our most gifted actors.
In Mamet's "mythological" take (more on that later), we view Spector through the eyes of defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren), who has been recruited to assist in Spector's first court case. The film is essentially about the uneasy relationship between Baden and her peculiar client.
Initially, Baden is convinced that her client is guilty, even though he claims it was a suicide. Her first visit to his ostentatious Southern California "castle" does little to change her mind. This is a strange, egotistic, gun-loving little man who adorns his rooms with, among other things, owl statues, carnival attractions, prison bars and busts of Abraham Lincoln.
It doesn't help, either, that several women have come forward to claim Spector held them captive at gunpoint during his frequent booty calls, or that his own limo driver issued a damaging statement to police.
Gradually, however, Baden comes to believe that the forensic evidence doesn't prove that Spector committed the crime -- that there is, indeed, cause for reasonable doubt.
But how do you defend a guy who the public largely views as a delusional freak? When Spector one day shows up for his trial rocking the aforementioned big hair (as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix), it becomes all too apparent that she has her work cut out for her.
Pacino and Mirren make for a dynamic pair. While his Spector spews voluminous screeds about his "Wall of Sound" glory days, and how he worked with greats like the Beatles, John Lennon and Tina Turner, she gamely filters his baloney and keeps him in line.
Pacino takes a character that could have been a one-dimensional cartoon and finds his beating heart. He's able to keep him convincingly unpredictable and maddening and sympathetic from one moment to the next. Mirren, in a much less showier role, succeeds at giving Baden a weary, but resilient toughness.
There is almost no "action" to speak of in the film. From Spector's verbal bluster, to all the chatter about ballistics and forensics, it's a very talkie 90 minutes, occasionally punctuated by a haunting soundtrack.
But the high-caliber performers, as well as Mamet's sparkling dialogue, keep things compelling. Along the way, they get us pondering the nature of celebrity, media, justice, prejudice and just what exactly is the meaning of the term "reasonable doubt."
Speaking of reasonable doubt, viewers might be inclined to have a bit of their own while watching "Phil Spector," no matter how captivating it is. That's because it starts with a clunky disclaimer that reads: "This is a work of fiction. It's 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 comment upon the trial or its outcome."
This blurring of narrative lines is becoming more fashionable these days and too often it feels like an easy cop-out. It's particularly troublesome with a relatively recent true-crime saga such this one because many viewers come in already knowing the facts and/or craving a deeper understanding of them. Instead, they're left to wonder about the overall credibility of the endeavor.
This much is known: The film concludes with Spector's 2007 court case, which ended in a mistrial with a deadlocked jury (10-2 in favor of conviction). He was retried and, in 2009, was found guilty of second-degree murder. Baden did not participate in that trial.