Those swaggering knights of Vegas nights TV: HBO's 'Rat Pack' crackles with crisp performances even if its focus is too much on the Chairman of the Board.

August 22, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"The Rat Pack" starts out all a-ring-a-ding-ding lingo and martini-retro chic of Las Vegas circa 1960. But once it sheds the superficial trappings of pop memory, this HBO film has some powerful stories to tell. The problem is, it picks the wrong one to feature.

The tale director Rob Cohen wants most to tell is that of Frank Sinatra. After the 10 million overblown appreciations of Sinatra in May when he died, why go on about who he really was or wasn't?

In this film, he is depicted as King Arthur of the Blackjack Table. The Sands Hotel is his castle, and his loyal knights include Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. He has a Guinevere, Ava Gardner, but she's off in Spain making love to bullfighters and such most of the time. Furthermore, when she and Frank are together, all they do is fight.

This makes Frank a little sad, but, hey, he gets over it when he's performing onstage, hanging with his fellow Rat Packers or shown in bed with not one but two women.

But what Frank really wants is mainstream respectability, and the opportunity appears to present itself with John Kennedy looking for help in his bid for the White House. As this film tells it, if JFK didn't have those pesky primary elections to win and a real mean daddy named Joe, he'd have probably moved right into the Sands and become one of the Pack.

But, of course, he wins the White House and then betrays Frank. This is where we are supposed to feel sad. It's 1963, and the glory days are over for the Pack.

Not a bad story, though the hagiography of Sinatra is a bit much. Cohen says he wanted to "recapture, not imitate, a spirit of people and seminal time in our cultural history." His choice of Ray Liotta goes a long way toward that goal. Liotta looks almost nothing like Sinatra, which is a bit off-putting at first. But, ultimately, Liotta's gifts as an actor make you believe in the reality he creates.

As you might expect in an HBO film, the casting and performances are generally on the money: Joe Mantegna as Martin, Don Cheadle as Davis, Angus Macfadyen as Lawford and Bobby Slayton as Bishop. Cheadle, in fact, is so good that his Sammy Davis story is the one you wish the filmmakers had chosen to showcase. As it is, they tell just enough to subvert the main narrative.

Screenwriter Kario Salem, who won a Peabody Award for "Don King: Only in America," teams up with choreographer Savion Glover of "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" to give Davis the film's best moment -- a dream-sequence dance number to "I've Got You Under My Skin" that stops the show. But since this is a film that's mainly supposed to be about Sinatra -- and not a Broadway musical about Davis -- that's not such a good thing dramatically.

Cheadle does most of the singing when Davis is shown onstage, though some is also voiced by Gunnar Madsen. All the Sinatra vocals are done by Michael Dees, while Warren Wiebe does most of Martin. You don't really notice any major musical shortcomings until the final scene, which features Sinatra alone in a Capitol Records studio -- just him, the microphone and a backlit haze of cigarette smoke. Dees' voice isn't enough to deliver all the melancholy the scene is supposed to suggest.

Still, "The Rat Pack" swings. It's not a home-run swing, but it reaches extra bases for what it has to say about a certain male swagger that's been lost and how upward mobility will take you only as far as the real powers say you can go. That's worth at least 2 and a half a-ring-a-ding-dings out of four.

'That '70s Show'

It's Milwaukee, the suburbs, 1976, and a group of teen-age friends is looking for action.

If it was 20 years earlier, they'd head down to Arnold's, grab a malt and fries and wait for the Fonz to show up. But not this crew. They sit in the basement and smoke dope.

That's the setting for the pilot of "That '70s Show," a much-discussed new fall series from Fox premiering tomorrow night.

Most of the discussion has been about the show's messages concerning teen drug use. In one scene, 17-year-old Eric Foreman (Topher Grace), the emotional center of the show, is called upstairs from the basement while he's high on marijuana. As his parents talk to him, we see the scene from his point of view. And what he mainly sees is the wallpaper moving in psychedelic patterns behind his silly-looking parents.

I'm a lot more troubled by how the producers have reduced the 1970s to disco music, the Farrah poster, platform shoes, tie-dyed shirts and men wearing bad perms than I am by the drugs. But I'm guessing parents of teens might feel otherwise.

The Eric character and his sort-of girlfriend, Donna (Laura Prepon), do provide a few sparks of interest in this ensemble of pTC dumbed-down teens, but it's not enough for me.

Fox calls the series "retro hip." I think it's retro dull. It probably seems a lot funnier if you are 16 and smoking pot.

'Holding the Baby'

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