Fox is first with bloody Menendez movie

April 18, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Hey, look, there's Lyle and Erik Menendez splattering mom and dad with shotgun blasts all over the living room carpet.

Isn't it nice the way the networks have toned down violence and taken the high road on ripped-from-the-headlines docudramas?

Yes, indeed, the first of the made-for-TV murder movies about the Menendez brothers arrives tonight at 8 on Fox. And what a sorry piece of work it is. In fact, "Honor Thy Father and Mother: The True Story of The Menendez Murders" is enough to make you want to rent one of the Amy Fisher flicks for a fix of quality drama.

And just as they did with Amy's saga, the networks will give us more made-for-TV Menendez-mania than we ever thought we'd want. CBS will try to make up in quantity what it lacks in Fox's speed with a double dose of Menendez -- a four-hour movie called "Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills." Scheduled for May 24 and 25, it stars Edward James Olmos, Beverly D'Angelo, Damian Chapa and Travis Fine. Can you wait?

For the record, the real-life Menendez case resulted in two hung juries over the question of whether Lyle and Erik are guilty of murder in the 1989 shooting deaths of their parents. The boys admit to having pulled the triggers -- 16 times to be exact -- but say their father sexually abused them and that they feared for their lives.

A federal judge last week denied a request by defense attorneys seeking an injunction to stop Fox from showing the film in Los Angeles. The judge further refused to order Fox to provide a disclaimer or remove the words "true" and "murders" from the movie's title.

"We're alleging that this movie is false in virtually every respect. Even when they use the true facts, they twist them . . . or use the district attorney's version," says Leslie Abramson, the real attorney for Erik Menendez.

The defense says airing the film will make it impossible to seat impartial jurors for the retrial, which has not been scheduled.

What a fool Abramson is to think docu-slime like this has anything to do with "true facts." We're talking sexual perversion and shotgun violence, baby.

The film says the father, Jose Menendez, sexually abused the boys. Of course it does -- whether it happened or not. Do you think Fox is going to pass on a chance to give graphic descriptions of how Jose allegedly forced one of his sons to perform oral sex on him -- especially since Jose is dead and can't sue?

On the other hand, it also implies that the boys' primary line of defense -- that they thought papa was going to off them, and they acted in self-defense by killing him first -- is a lie. The film suggests (but is careful not to exactly say so, this being the never-never-legal-land of docudrama) that the real fear of the Menendez brothers was that the old man was going to cut them out of his multi-million-dollar will.

Fox's focus is the brothers -- 26-year-old Lyle, played by David Beron, and Erik, 23, played by Billy Warlock. They're the kind of cynical, self-centered, fairly stupid young men it's fun to hate. Their parents' bodies are not even buried and the boys are on Rodeo Drive buying Rolex watches with daddy's dough.

But, since they never pay for their deadly mayhem, viewing the film is ultimately an exercise in frustration.

There's even more frustration in trying to get a sense of the parents, who are played by James Farentino and Jill Clayburgh. The familiar Mr. Farentino is made up to look like the real father, according to Fox press releases, but the hairstyle makes him a near double for Adolph Hitler -- which is distracting.

Ms. Clayburgh, playing a woman who was allegedly a drunk and allowed her sons to be sexually abused, actually manages to wring a note of pity out of the few scenes she's given. But, mainly, you simply stare at Ms. Clayburgh and wonder how an actress so talented wound up in this kind of docudrama hell.

Is there anything worthy of praise in this film?

Yes, at the very end, we revisit the Menendez home on the night of the shootings. After the boys have emptied their shotguns into their parents, Erik notices that mom is still alive.

So, the brothers run back out to the car and reload. Then they race back in to finish the job.

The filmmakers show Erik pointing the gun at the floor where mom is lying near death. But the camera then pulls away, and we are spared seeing the final blast and its impact.

I think Fox deserves a big round of applause for not showing mom exploding on the floor as the pellets of the 16th blast tear into her bloody flesh.

Who says the networks can't police themselves?

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