It’s not hard to understand why Lifetime would want to take a risk on the erratic Lindsay Lohan to play Elizabeth Taylor in the channel’s new movie “Liz & Dick” (Sunday at 9 p.m.).
First Lohan’s likely the most famous actress the channel could get for the role – even if she’s been more infamous for the last several years – and her presence will draw attention from people who otherwise wouldn’t bother watching. (Case in point: this is the first Lifetime movie I’ve written about in six years, going back to Sarah Chalke in “Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy.”)
Second, Lohan and Taylor have enough in common – former child stars who have become paparazzi obsessions as adults – that the “Liz & Dick” producers might have hoped this would be the role to re-harness the talent Lohan has let drift away in the years since “Mean Girls,” and possibly provide some focus for her as well.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Off-camera, Lohan got into several tabloid-ready incidents during filming. On-camera, she”s inexpressive and extremely contemporary, in no way evoking one of the most iconic movie stars of all time even when she’s wearing one of Taylor’s signature costumes from “Cleopatra.”
The shame of it is, her co-star Grant Bowler (you may remember him as Cooter the werewolf biker on “True Blood”) acquits himself quite well as the love of Taylor’s life, her two-time husband Richard Burton. The New Zealand-born Bowler does a close enough approximation of Burton’s deep Welsh voice. More importantly, though, he’s believable as a temperamental, alcoholic star of stage and screen whose worst instincts come to the surface whenever he gets a look at Liz Taylor’s big violet eyes.
If Lohan were up for playing at Bowler’s level, “Liz & Dick” might not be a great movie – like “Cleopatra,” the famously expensive film the two met on, it’s overdone in every way (there are two different framing devices, as if writer Christopher Monger and/or director Lloyd Kramer couldn’t choose between them) and features horribe dialogue like “I don’t loathe you; I hate you!” – but it might be an entertaining biopic about a couple who inadvertently helped create the celebrity tabloid culture we live in today.
But because Lohan seems to be going to a costume party dressed as Taylor while Bowler’s giving a performance, the whole thing is an imbalanced mess. When a scene is focusing on Burton, it”s melodramatic but sincere. When it”s about Taylor, and Lohan is flatly delivering lines like “You know I”m shagging him senseless, don”t you?,” it”s camp. And the two halves don”t fit.
There”s probably a metaphor in there somewhere about the relationship between Burton the thespian from the stage (though he starred in plenty of schlock to support their lifestyle) and Taylor the legendary movie beauty (though she won two Oscars for her acting, including the year she won for “Who”s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Burton didn”t). But in practice, it doesn”t work. “Liz & Dick” isn”t good enough to be a fitting tribute to this tempestuous, well-chronicled romance, nor bad enough to be a camp classic. It”s just a flat, uneven biopic that will get viewership on Sunday night not because it”s good, but because of who”s in it.
Like almost everyone who watched Lohan grow up on screen in “The Parent Trap,” “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls,” I had high hopes for what she might do as an adult. But as a child star who remained successful as an adult, Taylor was the exception, not the rule, and she had her own struggles along the way. I”d have been very happy if “Liz & Dick” had turned out to be the first step in a major Lohan comeback. It”s not.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org