Monday, January 15, 2007

Movie Review: The Rat Pack 3 1/2 Stars

To tackle the life story of any talented pop culture icon is a tall order to fill. To attempt the biographies of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. (and their peripheral drinking-and-whoring buddies Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop) is near impossible. But under Rob Cohen’s capable direction, The Rat Pack brings to life the unique chemistry the entertainers shared and captures the energy of their hilarious onstage antics.

The Rat Pack chronicles the middle careers of the stars in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Led by the Chairman of the Board (Ray Liotta), the Rat Pack ventures into Vegas, feature films and even politics.

A volatile Sinatra decides to back Jack Kennedy in the 1960 election. Aided by Dino (Joe Mantegna), Sammy (Don Cheadle) and Peter Lawford (Angus Mcfadyen), Frank begins to campaign for Kennedy in earnest. Frank’s Hollywood connections reflect badly on the candidate, and Joe Kennedy intercedes. Not only does he want Sinatra to sever ties with certain unsavory types, he also “suggests” that Frank use his Mafia connections to insure that Jack wins by a landslide.

After the inauguration, brother Bobby turns on the very mobsters that got Jack elected, indicting Momo Giancana (Robert Miranda), Mickey Cohen (Alan Woolf) and Johnny Roselli (Joe Cortese). Frank, stuck hopelessly in the middle, in turn sticks Lawford--Jack’s brother-in-law—hopelessly in the middle, and the slow, painful deterioration of the Rat Pack begins.

Mantegna is wonderfully mumble-mouthed as the glib, alcoholic Dean Martin. Cheadle sizzles in one of the most stirring fantasy sequences/musical numbers recorded on film. His Sammy Davis, Jr. delivers a sinister version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” in the faces of taunting racists. McFadyen portrays Lawford as a weasly neurotic who suffers indignities at the hands of everyone he encounters. Liotta, as Sinatra, has the biggest shoes to fill and performs admirably under the pressure. Although at times he seems uncomfortable playing Ol’ Blue Eyes, Liotta delivers a complex and pained performance as a powerful man trying to do the right thing but, more often than not, incapable of doing so.

Lensed by Shane Hurlbut, with production design by Hilda Stark Manos, The Rat Pack is a visually stunning film as well. Indeed, the film’s only flaw is that Cohen and writer Kario Salem cram too much into its two-hour running time. With all the Kennedys, mobsters, Marilyns and Dimaggios, one of the members of the Rat Pack is all but forgotten. Poor Joey Bishop (Bobby Slayton) appears in only a few scenes, one step above background atmosphere.

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