The HBO original movie based on the trial of Phil Spector provides a showcase for a fully invested Al Pacino in the title role, not to mention some juicy bits of business for Helen Mirren as his attorney.
Unfortunately, the David Mamet written and directed"Phil Spector" confines itself too much to the procedural specifics of the case, and to interior locations, which gives the film a close, even claustrophobic, air (despite some lavish sets, such as a succession of themed rooms in Spector’s mansion). These close quarters don’t even provide a sense of intimacy; for all Pacino’s bravura edginess, Spector’s wordy tirades permit only glimpses of the erratic genius responsible for numerous hits over the course of a long career in the music business. (The film is similarly obscured, littered with Spector-produced chestnuts that feel out of place.)
Mirren’s costars as Linda Kenney Baden, the lawyer who masterminds Spector’s defense strategy. While Pacino throws himself into his part scenery (and dialogue) chewing gusto, Mirren seems a tad stiff in her role and a trifle uneasy with her assumed American accent. This may not be either star’s best work, but it hardly matters. This is Helen Mirren, after all, and Al Pacino, and watching them together on screen is a thrill in itself.
Though a title card at the beginning declares this is a work of fiction, the movie hews closely to fact. An actress named Lana Clarkson dies by gunshot wound while in Spector’s house in 2003. Suspicion naturally falls on Spector, a gun enthusiast with a reputation for treating women roughly. As the trial date nears, the outlook for Spector is grim: As Baden points out repeatedly to lead defense attorney Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor), the case has all but been lost from the start because Spector is a "freak." It’s his personal oddness for which he’s on trial -- Clarkson’s death is merely the occasion for his pillorying.
But forensic science throws up significant doubts, and Baden becomes convinced of Spector’s innocence. The problem lies with proving it: Baden doesn’t want to blame the victim, and in any case can a man as irrepressibly strange as Spector get a fair trial? It takes some real legal genius to navigate around the obstacles in the case, including the judge’s refusal to admit key pieces of evidence.
Mamet seems comfortable in the courtroom / procedural genre; there are times when "Phil Spector" feels like its channeling Mamet’s play "Race," a legal drama that explores some similar themes. But comfortable isn’t enough to electrify this production.