But, Lisa Schwarzbaum wonders, when is a cameo role more than just an acting job?
Kelsey Grammer, 15 Minutes
Credit: Fifteen Minutes: New Line Productions
  • Movie

”15 Minutes” features a real life mob lawyer

The lurid topical thriller ”15 Minutes” (opening March 9), is about an Eastern European psycho on a killing spree in New York City whose knowledge of the United States starts and ends with trust in the American obsession with fame. Fame, this shnook understands, is a magic mantle that grants its owner immunity — from rules, from laws, from everyday ethical considerations.

Certainly as far as Hollywood and the news media are concerned, fame is a powerful potion that simultaneously confers acting talent on celebrities, and wipes out persnickety distinctions between fact and fiction. CNN’s Larry King and Jay Leno of ”The Tonight Show” regularly interview fictional characters in movies. Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani are always available for cameo work. Fame has made media stars out of ”Survivor”’s Richard Hatch, Monica Lewinsky, and the Duchess of York. This blurring of distinctions between truth and make-believe, ability and celebrity, pleases us, because the business of America is? showbiz.

My point, and I do have one: Bruce Cutler, a New York City defense lawyer nationally famous for defending men accused of being mobsters (i.e., crime boss John Gotti), plays himself in ”15 Minutes.” That is, he plays a spotlight-happy lawyer named Bruce Cutler, who jumps in front of the cameras to defend the wily Eastern European psycho (Karel Roden) against murder charges — encouraging the defendant during private consultation to delve deep into his supposedly abusive childhood as the pardonable excuse for his evil. (The killer also knows that Americans love sob stories by ”victimized” criminals.) Clearly the real-life attorney relished the assignment — the part is much more than a cameo — and he throws himself into the role of beat-the-rap-by-any-means legal showman who knows how to work the system for the benefit of his client as well as his own celebrity profile.

But here’s where I draw the line: Just as I think an ethical distinction must be made between Larry King and, say, O.J. Simpson trading on their fame to play themselves in movies, so I think it’s queasy-making and wrong for a man who makes lots of money keeping reputed mobsters out of prison to wink at audiences on screen, as if everything were equally okay in this rock-and-roll world of ours. Sure, his appearance in ”15 Minutes” signals, Bruce Cutler is a real, high-priced Mob lawyer, but isn’t the Mob showbiz? And don’t we all love ”The Sopranos” on HBO?

”The Sopranos,” yes we do. We love it when Tony hides hundreds of thousands of bucks in a gym bag at the office of his smooth-talking counselor-at-law. But ”The Sopranos” is art, it’s fiction. Bruce Cutler is real, a lawyer who does fancy footwork in front of judges and juries on behalf of real wiseguys and asks the newspaper-reading public to admire his moves. ”15 Minutes” asks us to admire his moves, too, because Cutler is famous. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called pandering.

15 Minutes
  • Movie
  • 120 minutes
  • John Herzfeld