Lindsay Lohan in Lifetime's Liz & Dick: The wrong kind of showbiz train wreck
Here’s the thing about an Elizabeth Taylor biopic starring infamous showbiz basket case Lindsay Lohan: You know it’s going to be cheesy.
The only question left, is whether it will be good cheese.
Unfortunately, even that’s in short supply after two hours slogging through Lifetime’s Liz & Dick — an uneven, made-for-television look at the 12 years Taylor spent in her first marriage to the boozy, petulant onetime Shakespearean actor-turned-film star Richard Burton.
The heart of the issue, as always, is Lohan herself.
At times, mostly during confessional segments where she faces the camera adorned in fake eyelashes and her blazing blue eyes, Lohan reminds us of the promising starlet who lit up films like Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, summoning Taylor’s unique blend of glamour, entitlement and wounded beauty.
But most of this film lands a long way from quality, hobbled by a script that references ideas rather than realizes them, steadfastly refusing to be the full-on pop culture train wreck most of us were salivating for.
Details in this film are often announced by the characters in bursts of shouted dialogue, as if producers were afraid you wouldn’t notice unless they slammed the information on your head like a two-by-four.
“I’ve done 29 pictures since I was nine,” Lohan-as-Taylor shouts in one scene, presumably explaining her raging case of arrested development. “If I’m not mistaken, you just ended your fourth marriage,” an assistant tells Lohan-as-Taylor, and us, just before the starlet hooks up with Burton.
Character actors TV fans love pop up in blink-and-you-miss-them parts, from The Nanny’s Charles Schaughnessy as the put-upon producer of 1963’s Burton/Taylor classic The V.I.P.s and Sex and the City’s David Eigenberg as the screenwriter who adapted Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf to the screen, Ernest Lehman. Couldn’t they find more for these guys to do than swoon and rage over the movie’s star-crossed couple?
(The film’s fleeting reference to The V.I.P.s – a classic, star-stuffed ‘60s film with appearances by Orson Welles, Louis Jordan and Maggie Smith well before she became a dame – was a missed opportunity in itself.)
Liz & Dick takes great pains to cast Taylor and Burton as the first couple of the tabloid age; hounded by photographers not long after the term paparazzi was invented, living the kind of lavishly indulgent lives gossip magazines exist to chronicle.
In the age of reality TV and TMZ, seeing these legends sleep around and get drunk lacks punch — like watching an old-timey pilot for Keeping Up with the Burtons.
The story begins with an aged Burton flashing back to his first sight of Taylor, across a crowded party not long before they would be cast together in 1963’s Cleopatra. (In another one of those board-across-the-head moments, a graphic blares to the audience that, yes, it is Burton’s last day alive.)
At first, it’s hate at first sight, as Taylor resists the “Welsh Don Juan” and Burton reacts like wounded child. Then, she’s telling husband Eddie Fisher to his face that she loves Burton as he ignores a long-suffering wife and children to take up with the 29-year-old beauty, enabled by a coterie of handlers who distract the spouses when necessary.
One problem here, and this film has more issues than both its subjects combined, is that there are no likeable characters anywhere in sight.
As played by Lohan and New Zealand native Grant Bowler (saddled with a hairpiece bad enough to have its own Saturday Night Live sketch), Taylor and Burton are impulsive, childlike stars, blithely unconcerned with the impact their philandering, overspending and volatile romance has on anyone around them.
Even the pleasure of seeing Lohan play another famous showbiz casualty is blunted by the film’s inability to explain why Taylor was such a well of insecurity and emotional need in the first place. Bowler fares much better, creating a Burton who is compelling and familiar without veering into parody.
In the end, Lohan is a child star-turned-grown-up wreck playing the most famous child star-turned-grown-up wreck in a TV movie too bad to be good and too good to be a guilty pleasure. It’s all so meta it will make your brain hurt.
Quite by accident, Liz & Dick exposes the greatest tragedy of these two past film stars: that they mostly exist in the modern age as symbols and cautionary tales.
The biggest tragedy of Liz & Dick is that this Lifetime movie is too lightweight to change any of that, yet just serious enough to hint at what might have been.
Liz and Dick airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.