Samuel Johnson famously described the idea of a woman's preaching as "like a dog's walking on his hind legs: it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all".

It's hard not to have a similar reaction to this dramatisation of the last 10 years in the life of Wladzio Valentino Liberace, the bespangled pianist and showman for whom the word "flamboyant" might have been invented.

Director Soderbergh, who has hinted that it may be his last film, spent several years - during which stars Douglas and Damon remained staunchly loyal to the project - trying to get backing from Hollywood studios (he says they rejected it as "too gay" to sell). Funded at last by HBO, the film screened only on television in the US.

So its existence is, like that walking dog's, an achievement in itself. But, despite superb work from the main duo, it never rises above formulaic. It's a film without a beating heart, without blood flowing through its veins.


Its source is the 1988 memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson, who at 17 became the personal assistant, companion and lover of the entertainer, then 40 years his senior.

Though a regular part of Liberace's performance - in a rhinestone-encrusted white chauffeur's suit he would drive the star on stage in a Rolls-Royce - he lived mostly in the wings, first as an indulged toy boy but later, and more disturbingly, as a man to be adopted and even remade, by cosmetic surgery, in his sugar daddy's image. (The film has a crass and distractingly hammy cameo by Lowe as a plastic surgeon).

It gives nothing away to say that it all ended in tears: Thorson's drug-taking; his eviction by goons; the famous palimony suit (he sought $135 million and got less than a thousandth of that).

The screenplay, by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King; The Horse Whisperer) surveys its discrete time period with what seems like comprehensive attention to detail, though that's one of the film's liabilities: many of the scenes feel perfunctory, as if being ticked off a list of events that must be covered.

It's a shame really, since Douglas' Liberace, an improbable piece of casting, is a revelation. The gravelly voice, doubtless exaggerated by throat-cancer treatment, is unlike the nasal original, but he has created a figure of majestic extravagance without once resorting to strutting camp.

Damon is touching, too, although the film buys his version of events so Thorson ends up as more of a victim than he probably was. But as characters they lack complexity and the two actors never generate any chemistry - except, perversely, in bed. Fatally, it is impossible for us to care much what happened to either of them.

Stars: 3/5
Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Tom Papa, Paul Reiser, Debbie Reynolds
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Running time: 119 mins
Rating: M (sex scenes, offensive language, drug use)
Verdict: Missing a heartbeat.

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- TimeOut