Chairman of the bored

HBO's Rat Pack don't mean a thing, because it ain't got no swing

There is no romanticism left in the stories of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Too many biographies--good and bad, well-told and shoddily reported--have stripped away the excesses of glitz and glamour and revealed the tortured, often sad men who lived underneath the tuxedos and swam below the rye whiskey. It is impossible now to think of those men as larger-than-life heroes who ruled Las Vegas--if not America, if not the world--with songs in their hearts and drinks in their hands. Everything was not so ring-a-ding-ding out in the deserts of Vegas and Palm Springs. Frank and the boys were merely fragile icons at best, men one step away from falling off the lip of the stage and shattering into a thousand pieces. Hell, Frank was the most frail of the lot.

Those who want to wallow in an aura that has long since faded from fiery neon to dull gray should watch Ocean's 11 or Four For Texas and listen to Dean sing "Everybody Loves Somebody" or own the albums Sinatra cut for his Reprise label in the 1960s. In the end, Sinatra's Rat Pack (born out of Humphrey Bogart's Holmby Hills Rat Pack) lasted not long at all--from the late 1950s until Kennedy's assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963--or the very day that Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and the rest of their pallies were clowning around on the set of Robin and the Seven Hoods. The death of Kennedy--the man Sinatra most wanted to bed, if only in the figurative sense--put the kibosh on the live-fast era. Frank was partying hard while his friend, his idol, his partner in lechery was taking it in the throat in Dealey Plaza, and he would become a somber man after that.

That's the Sinatra that screenwriter Kario Salem tries to capture in his film The Rat Pack, which debuts on HBO this Saturday--the wounded beast who could never understand why, with all his fame and fortune, he was unable to buy just a little respectability. Salem portrays Sinatra (played, without an ounce of style, by Ray Liotta) as a pathetic superstar prone to hissy fits of rage when wronged by reporters or Ava Gardner or Bobby Kennedy, who wouldn't let his brother stay at Frank's place in Palm Springs because of Sinatra's ties to Sam Giancana and other mobsters. The Frank we're presented with is a man with no substance at all--just a lot of hurt beneath those fancy suits and that famous arrogance. You half expect Liotta to cry every few minutes, so casually does he wear that wounded look on his blank face. Liotta, in fact, plays Sinatra as though he were a shadow.

Now, all of this is, more or less, true. It may not fit as neatly on the time line as Salem and director Rob Cohen (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) would have you believe--the incident when Sinatra attacked a journalist took place in 1959, not in the '60s, and that's just one insignificant shifting of events--but the basic facts of The Rat Pack are indisputable. That is: Frank Sinatra was buddies with Dean Martin (Joe Mantegna, the only cast member actually doing an impression) and Sammy Davis Jr. (Don Cheadle, whose hairpiece and eye patch do the work for him) and Peter Lawford (the simpy Angus Macfadyen) and Joey Bishop (the uncanny Bobby Slayton). Sinatra wanted to get Kennedy (impersonated here by To Live and Die in L.A.'s William Petersen) elected and ride his coattails into Washington. Sinatra was buddies with Giancana (Robert Miranda). And Sinatra liked to get laid two chickies at a time.

Fine--the facts of this story will get you far. Few men in the history of show business lived such rich, fascinating, depressing lives, and there is no need to jigger with history when it is far more titillating than fiction. But Cohen manages to recount this tawdry tale without any style at all--it's like making a film about Picasso in black and white. Salem, who wrote the outrageously fun Don King: Only in America for HBO, can't seem to get his arms around the Rat Pack's story, so he turns the film into a thesis paper on Sinatra and his buddies, a phlegmatic run-though of the greatest hits and misses. The retelling is as dry as the desert in which it's set, bereft of any feeling for these men and their pleasures and pain--indeed, a large part of their history, together and separately, is told in the old newspaper headlines that stream over the action like subtitles. This feels like a TV movie.

The Rat Pack begins clumsily (with an old-man Frank standing in the wings, moaning, "I miss my guys" before cutting to 1960) and ends even more awkwardly (Sinatra is stood up by Kennedy, goes into a rage, then sings a sad song until the fade out). For the first 10 minutes or so, as the movie introduces us to the main characters, it's something of a lark, more like Ocean's 11 than any biopic. It hints at something far more entertaining than its final 110 minutes offer. We see Martin slinking through the crowded casino at the Sands, Mantegna doing his best Dino as he utters in that sly, half-drunk lounge-lizard voice, "How did all these people get in my room?" We see Davis on stage wearing his eye patch, blowing a trumpet, tap-dancing, clowning around with Sinatra, thanking people "from the bottom" (of his heart, baby). And we see Lawford, scared to death of Sinatra, cowering in his presence.

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