NYT reviews "Liz & Dick"

There are moments in “Liz & Dick” when Lindsay Lohan looks a lot like Elizabeth Taylor. There are others in which she looks like Elizabeth Taylor doing a “Saturday Night Live” impersonation of Lindsay Lohan.

“Liz & Dick,” being shown on Sunday on Lifetime, could be worse. Some scenes, though there are too few of them, are kind of fun. The film’s real failure is that it’s not terrible enough. Instead it is a respectful and oddly cramped tribute to the legendary love affair between Taylor and Richard Burton that isn’t vulgar enough to be entertainingly campy and is too wedded to the myth to riff imaginatively on the couple’s gaudy, outsize celebrity.

Mostly, of course, there’s the casting problem. The choice of Ms. Lohan is a gimmick that will certainly draw attention and probably viewers. But it’s not a kindness to that actress, who fails to deliver the kind of breakthrough performance that augurs a comeback. Ms. Lohan is a 26-year-old former child star who, in “Liz & Dick,” is most believable when playing a former child star in her 40s. Absurdly, given Ms. Lohan’s actual youth, her smoky voice and prematurely smoothed features and puffed lips suggest an aging beauty struggling to look young, not a young actress made up to look old.

She isn’t ridiculous in the role, and her eyes do look violet, but she is oddly passive, sleepwalking through scenes that call for passion and caprice. She can’t do Taylor’s famously candied voice, and doesn’t try.

Grant Bowler is better cast as Burton — he mimics that actor’s deep voice and some of his panache — but his is still a pallid impersonation.

And there is something a little embarrassing about an industry that keeps trying to replicate stars who are inimitable. For every relative achievement — James Franco in the 2001 biopic “James Dean,” or Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in the recent “My Week With Marilyn” — there are scores of failures, including flameouts like Jennifer Love Hewitt in “The Audrey Hepburn Story,” and James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh in “Gable and Lombard.” The odds are so awful that even mild success is sometimes lavishly rewarded: Halle Berry won a Golden Globe for playing Dorothy Dandridge, and Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator.”

Ms. Lohan herself has posed twice as Marilyn Monroe — once, wearing mainly a diaphanous scarf in New York magazine, and later, for Playboy, without any clothes at all.

There’s a reason for all the remakes and imitations. Studios feel safer financing projects that offer something audiences already recognize. (That also explains the Broadway takes on baby boomer classics like “The Addams Family.”) Most people have heard of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, even if they’ve never seen “Cleopatra” and don’t know anything about Eddie Fisher.

The film begins with Burton in 1984, on the edge of death at his home in Switzerland, as he looks back at the love of his life. In his reverie he fantasizes that she and he are ensconced in directors’ chairs on a studio set and affectionately reminiscing about their scandalous love affair and two marriages.

In flashbacks, they meet at a Hollywood party, but she takes no notice of him. The first real encounter of these two stars, both married to other people, is on the set of “Cleopatra” in Rome, when initial dislike flares into fiery passion and heated couplings in trailers at the Cinecittà studios and along the Amalfi coast.

When the dialogue is based on Burton’s real-life love letters, it’s pretty good. When it’s not, it’s laughable: In a postcoital bubble bath à deux, Taylor purrs, “Who knew Italy could be so hot?”

Paparazzi were then a relatively new phenomenon, and so was such brazen adultery by famous movie stars — the Vatican newspaper condemned Taylor and Burton for “erotic vagary.” They defied the critics with gusto, binging on drinks, sex, yachts, resorts and jewelry.

The later years, especially, should be a gas to watch — a carnival of Fellini and Fendi and ’70s kitsch — but it’s actually a bit of a snooze.

And that only heightens depressing comparisons between the two actresses.

At Ms. Lohan’s age, Taylor had already had three husbands, starring roles in “Giant” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and was one of the most famous sex symbols of her time — only Marilyn Monroe had as much mystique and paparazzi appeal.

Ms. Lohan, who was a child prodigy of an actress in “Parent Trap” and promising as a teenager in “Mean Girls,” really hasn’t done much since those films except be arrested.

“Liz & Dick” doesn’t capture the opulent, careless glamour of its subjects. The film is mostly a reminder that their kind of stardom is all but extinct.

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