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A specter is haunting 'Phil': The true story

Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
  • USA TODAY review%3A * * 1/2 stars out of four
  • HBO%2C Sunday%2C 9 ET/PT
  • Al Pacino and Helen Mirren star

Hair today, gone tomorrow.

You're unlikely to take away much from HBO's entertaining but empty take on Phil Spector's murder trial, written by theatrical legend David Mamet: Al Pacino really throws his all, and then some, into big moments; Helen Mirren can take even the smallest moment and make it shine. But you will remember Phil Spector's hair, which is not just a character in its own right, but is, apparently, the main reason Spector sits in jail today for the murder of Lana Clarkson.

Not that the Phil Spector you see in Phil Spector is Phil Spector — heaven forbid. Acting perhaps on legal advice, HBO has tried to backstop the movie with the most ludicrous, mealy-mouthed disclaimer the TV world has ever seen, one that insists that while this film was "inspired by actual persons in a trial," it does not depict the actual persons or comment upon the trial's outcome.

The polite, family newspaper word for that is "nonsense."

Yes, the Law & Order franchise has done much the same thing for decades, but it obscures identities and clearly tweaks events. You can not use real people's names and selectively follow an actual trial and expect us to accept that your work of fiction is "not 'based on a true story.'' Nor, more offensively, can you pretend that you're not commenting on the outcome of the trial when you make it impossible to watch the movie and not think Spector was innocent.

The only evidence we're shown makes it look like Spector could not have committed the crime, leaving us to conclude that the judge who kept out the evidence was stupid or corrupt and the jury that found Spector guilty in his second trial was blind or prejudiced. It's one thing to take a few liberties in Lincoln, and another to rewrite the story of a dead woman and the still-living man convicted of killing her — and then excuse every change by saying "it's not them."

A movie would have to be truly artistically astounding to make that kind of wholesale assault on logic, the reputation of the murder victim and the integrity of the judicial system acceptable. Phil doesn't even come close. Still, if you are willing and able to take it on its own fictional terms, it does work as a well-acted legal drama, though even on that level, you're better off watching The Good Wife.

As presented here, Pacino's Phil Spector — creator of the "Wall of Sound" — is the classic misunderstood artist: persecuted, he thinks, because of his genius, but more likely because he's arrogant and incredibly odd. (As in, those hairstyles.) With his case going badly, his lawyer (Jeffrey Tambor) turns for help to star defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren).

Initially, Baden thinks Spector's guilty. Then she decides he isn't, and sets out to prove it.

Few of the legal twists are likely to surprise anyone who's ever watched a courtroom drama, but that's probably not why you'd watch Phil. You watch for Pacino, who even in the midst of his rages creates an empathetic character, and Mirren, who imbues Baden with precisely the kind of sharp-witted intensity she needs to cut through Spector's pomposity. The look on her face when she realizes her efforts have been undone by Spector's inability to see himself as others see him almost excuses the cavalier approach the movie takes to truth and justice. Well, that and the wigs.

And if that sounds shallow, well, shallow waters are precisely the ones HBO chose to navigate.

Wigging out: Al Pacino is Phil Spector and Helen Mirren is his attorney.