At first, it’s jarring to see baby-faced Ray Liotta try to assume the chiseled profile of Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack, and it’s downright disconcerting to watch stoic Joe Mantegna’s attempts to mimic Dean Martin’s boozy, devil-may-care attitude. But as director Rob Cohen’s canny, hyper version of the Rat Pack myth begins to grab you, the actors’ physical limitations cease to be a hindrance to the drama, and this TV movie takes off with an irreverent energy and a swaggering style that does its subject proud.
It was the shrewd notion of Cohen (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) and screenwriter Kario Salem — the man who wrote last year’s brilliant HBO movie Don King: Only in America — to focus on a very specific era in the now-deceased Chairman of the Board’s career. The late ’50s and early ’60s were not only the height of his infamous Rat Pack, when Sinatra surrounded himself with showbiz cronies like Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. (Don Cheadle), Joey Bishop (Bobby Slayton), and Peter Lawford (Angus Macfadyen) to form a kind of floating nightclub act, movie cast (Ocean’s 11, Sergeants 3), and emotional-support group. It was also the period when he was attempting to reach out beyond showbiz, to exert an influence on politics in his cultivation of John F. Kennedy (William Petersen, who played JFK’s dad, Joseph, in the 1990 miniseries The Kennedys of Massachusetts). This relationship — which flourishes as Sinatra uses his Mob influence to swing the presidency to JFK, then withers as Kennedy spurns Sinatra’s friendship for those same Mob-related reasons — drives the plot of The Rat Pack. But the soul of the movie is in the Pack’s high jinks and complex camaraderie.
It’s telling that screenwriter Salem builds his best scenes not around Sinatra — who remains a potent yet unknowable enigma — but Martin and Davis. Martin, in fact, emerges as the true hero, in the sense that he’s the only guy who stands up to Sinatra’s bullying, who follows his own instincts and goes his own quietly tortured way. Cohen includes quick but cutting scenes of Martin’s emotional remoteness from his wife and even himself. And there’s a terrific montage in which the camera travels in and out of the windows of the Sands Hotel, as we see, in turn, Sinatra, JFK, Davis, and Lawford engaged in sex with various women; when the camera finally rests, it’s on Martin, alone in his room, looking at TV and sipping a glass of milk. The Dino dichotomy — the tippler hipster, the lonely lone cat — is vibrant here, and makes the recent news that Martin Scorsese has postponed his planned feature film of Nick Tosches’ great Martin biography Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams even more disappointing.
Beyond this, the best moment in The Rat Pack occurs just after Davis has announced his intention to marry the Swedish actress May Britt (Megan Dodds) and is inundated with racist hate mail. As he did in his Don King movie, Salem gets at emotional truth via a fantasy sequence: Davis imagines belting out an angrily ironic ”I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to an audience of cross-burning bigots, as Vegas-style neon signs blaze with racial epithets. It’s a galvanizingly surreal scene.
The Rat Pack founders in the area of Sinatra’s artistry; despite an otherwise sturdy performance, it’s impossible to believe that the greatest saloon singer’s voice is coming out of Liotta’s mouth. But Cheadle nails Davis’ showy affability and strenuous tap dancing (the latter thanks to the tutelage of choreographer Savion Glover). And in its re-creation of a time and spirit that our pop culture has so eagerly enshrined in instant legend, this clear-eyed, unsentimental movie is a small marvel of honesty and craft. A-