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The Rat Pack

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 21 August 1998

  Directed by Rob Cohen

Starring Ray Liotta, Joe Mantegna,
Don Cheadle, Angus Mcfadyen,
William Peterson, Bobby Slayton,
and
Zeljko Ivanek.

Written by Kario Salem.

Although The Rat Pack is another of those HBO Original Movie Event productions and not a bonafide theatrical feature, I guess I can be a little forgiving in my faulting this telefilm for its too grand intentions in packing too many snippets of the bad and the beautiful faces that were (and were associated with) that famous handful of the notorious (or at least notoriously-aware) entertainers that were the heart of showbiz and its gossip-drenched entrails during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Perhaps this might have worked if the network had fleshed out this nearly $10-million two-hour episode over a two- or three-day miniseries span; instead the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Cohen, Ava Gardner, et al, dart in and out of scenes like pop tarts, their hot-to-trot characters gone before you can get a taste. While you might be viewing the film after taping it during its premiere on August 22 (with repeat showings all week long), I caught it at a special preview sponsored by Entertainment Weekly (a subsidiary of Time Inc.), which gave this glossy Home Box Office (a subsidiary of Time Warner, Inc.--are we seeing a pattern yet?) show an A-. I’ll say this: I came, I sat, I left. I don’t have to waste my time this weekend or a blank VHS tape. This is not one I care to place in my video library.

Director Rob Cohen (Daylight) tries his best to get a handle on the fast-paced and over-packed screenplay by Kario Salem, whose Don King: Only in America was a well-received and well-awarded telefeature on HBO last year. Too bad Cohen couldn’t harp back to his first feature, the delightful A Small Circle of Friends (1980), a mercifully less-cluttered character-study. Rat Pack is on the other extreme -- a too big circle of friends, beginning with the stellar five: self-proclaimed manic-depressive Frank Sinatra (Ray Liotta), lush ladies man Dean "How did all these people get in my room?" Martin (Joe Mantegna), determined Sammy Davis, Jr. (Don Cheadle), nervous nelly Peter Lawford (Angus Mcfadyen), and fast-talking, rarely-scene Joey Bishop (Bobby Slayton). The ensemble then spreads out across the land from brooding mobsters Momo Giancana (Robert Miranda), Cohen (Alan Woolf), and Johnny Roselli (Joe Cortese) to strong-armed Kennedy’s Joe Sr. (Dan O’Herlihy), John F. (William Peterson), and Bobby (Zeljko Ivanek). Undoubtedly the late night shows will joke about comparisons between President Clinton’s recent adulterous revelations and President Kennedy’s bed-side associations with Elizabeth Taylor look-a-like Judy Campbell (Michelle Grace) and Monroe (Barbara Niven), as JFK’s philandering and Sinatra’s pimping are examining in tawdry detail.

There are some poignant moments (don’t blink or go to the bathroom), as the film starts with the lonesome Chairman of the Board, weakened by age and the death of his comrades, muttering before going on stage that his misses his guys. Liotta does convey the mannerisms, arrogance, and style (acutely enhanced by costume and hair stylists) of one of the 20th century’s greatest personalities, but his moments (and the rest of the quintet’s) are cut too short and the film sputters about some of the more important moments in the life of the Rat Pack: Frank’s mob and political connections, Sammy’s inter-racial affair then nuptial with Swedish starlet May Britt (Megan Dodds), the sullen Lawford’s marriage to JFK’s sister and his subsequent role as unremitting go-between for Sinatra and the White House. In an even more blatant exposure of the script’s shortcomings are the use of floating headlines, announcing weddings, divorces, break-ups, and related tragedies, to bridge huge gaps in the narrative.

The actors make every effort to sound like their original, but the master’s singing duties (the surprisingly few that there are) are relegated to voice-overs by Michael Dees, although Mantegna does warble well for Dino. Cheadle (Devil in a Blue Dress, Boogie Nights, and Picket Fences) does very well in his role as the born-again Jewish nightclub entertainer, especially showing his despair when harassed by a cross-burning Aryan public. Regretfully director Cohen’s use of surrealistic histrionics when Davis is set to perform at a DC nitery appears out of sorts from the rest of the film’s pastel realism. Production designer Hilda Stark Manos and freshman cinematographer Shane Hurlbut capture well the period tone of Vegas, the wacky planet Hollywood, and Sinatra’s luxurious digs in Palm Springs (catch for the pool and the toy train playroom to see what I mean). Visually this does help make this a somewhat more watchable production, but you still need a scorecard and program to follow the action.

Movie references (Some Came Running, Oceans 11, Sergeants 3) abound, but just one scene-behind-the-scene is reenacted, wherein producer-director Lewis Milestone gets one-upped by arrogant star Sinatra over doing a second take.

Too much, too much! I may not be a Sinatra fan, but I’d rather turn off the set and listen to any of his memorable hits than watch this forgettable sprawling condensation of a master and his comrades better remembered for their fame than their foibles.


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