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TELEVISION REVIEW

Let it go to voice mail

'Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss' offers guilty pleasures, but you'll hate yourself in the morning.

March 29, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

It's hard not to get gushy and effusive over a piece of work like "Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss."

Starring Jamie-Lynn DiScala (nee Sigler, a.k.a. Meadow Soprano) as the infamous Hollywood madam, the two-hour biopic plumbs artistic depths formerly reserved for the collaborations of Paul Verhoeven and Joe Ezsterhas -- after whom the Sopranos' neighbors' dog, incidentally, is named.

Coincidence? OK, yes. But "Call Me," which premieres tonight on the USA Network, nonetheless earns the distinction of being this week's made-for-TV "Showgirls." And to many, this should come as very good news indeed.

"The worst thing about being on trial is we have to get up early," DiScala drones over the movie's opening shots, a bird's-eye view of her car being greeted at the courthouse by throngs of reporters. "I wasn't used to it."

That's right, the worst thing. Right away, we are made to understand that Heidi Fleiss possesses the sang-froid of a frozen iguana, not to mention other unmentionable organs. Which is lucky for her, considering she wound up serving three years for tax evasion and money laundering while her powerful clients emerged from the prostitution scandal unscathed and mostly anonymous.

The daughter of a prominent pediatrician, Fleiss was operating a million-dollar call girl ring by the time she was 23. After her arrest, Fleiss refused to reveal her client list, and her infamous black book, filled with the names of stars, CEOs, movie producers, heads of state, royals, etc., was never released.

(In "Call Me," the address book is barbecued; whether that really happened will forever remain between the Weber and its manufacturer.)

"How did I meet them, you ask?" DiScala asks, even though nobody has done any such thing. By now, we recognize this as just one cliched convention in what is ultimately an abundant and deeply satisfying cheese platter of cliches about a privileged girl gone wild well before that sort of thing became available on DVD.

So why did Heidi do it?

Maybe it was her esoteric Weltanschauung:

"The way I look at it, in Hollywood you're nobody if you're not a star. And I was becoming a star."

Maybe it was her level-headed pragmatism:

"Everyone's for sale. All it takes is money."

Or maybe Freud was right after all:

"I've always had a thing for older men, starting with my dad," Heidi says, handily tracing her giddy ascent from bratty kid to teen head of a baby-sitting ring, to college dropout, to jailbait for pockmarked Euro-trash, to high-priced call girl, to flashy pimp mama to the stars. And the way she tells it, the path was straighter than an arrow. "First I met my boyfriend, who took me to his friend, the madam. She looked after girls. Lots of girls. Through her, I began to date men. Lots of men. They made me money. A lot of money. Life began to move fast. Really, really fast."

As fast -- don't even ask -- as the film footage, rewinding in really-really-fast motion.

Whether it's done for expediency, economy, or simply in an effort to convey the sort of supercilious, late-'80s world-weariness in which Fleiss came of age, Di- Scala limits her performance to one note and two expressions -- a flared-nostril snarl and a smug, lizardy smile that rather impressively involves curling her lower lip over the top of her lower teeth.

Maybe all the deep deadpan and extra ennui are meant to telegraph Heidi's jaded, been-there world-weariness or maybe DiScala was just trying to get it over with. Granted, you'd be bored too if you had to go from "The Sopranos" to this, but it's still jarring to watch DiScala deliver her lines -- lines such as, "Duh. Steve can afford anything his little heart desires. Especially you, you idiot" -- with the enthusiasm of a Domino's delivery man at the end of a 12-hour shift.

In the end, "Call Me" is the result of much more than the evolution of Heidi Fleiss. It's a compendium of bad movie cliches that include such classics as a coke-fueled, "Pretty Woman"-inspired Rodeo Drive shopping-makeover montage (to the tune of Brit synth-pop band ABC's "The Look of Love"); a hooker-snitches-to-corrupt-cop scene (as the Go-Go's "Our Lips Are Sealed" plays); a scene in which Fleiss heartlessly dumps the cheesy, over-the-hill boyfriend who has outlasted his social usefulness (EMF's "Unbelievable"); and, naturally, a switchboard montage of rapidly moving lips, twirly phone cords, a Saudi prince gesticulating wildly in the back of a limo, and a rock star being handed a cellphone the size of a Florsheim wing-tip.

For Heidi Fleiss, we know, the party was pretty much over after that. But as she concludes on her way out of the slammer three years later, "Once you accept that most women are evil, that most men are predictable pigs, and that somebody is always on a moral crusade ... the world's not such a bad place."

But then, next to "Call Me," anything looks pretty good.

*

'Call Me:

The Rise and Fall

of Heidi Fleiss'

Where: USA

When: 9 to 11 tonight, repeating Saturday at 11 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Jamie Lynn DiScala...Heidi Fleiss

Brenda Fricker...Madame Alex

Robert Davi...Ivan Nagy

Emmanuelle Vaugier...Lauren

Corbin Bernsen...Steve

Executive producer Stanley M. Brooks. Director Charles McDougall. Writer Norman Snider.

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