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Diet doc's murder tale skimps on the meat

Before Court TV, before Nancy (Not So Full of) Grace, and before the in-depth cable analyses of Michael Jackson's perp walk, there was the Scarsdale Diet Doctor Murder.

The 1980 case, in which school headmistress Jean Harris put on campy sunglasses and stood trial for shooting Dr. Herman Tarnower, was a watershed in tabloid legal coverage. For a litigation lover such as Dominick Dunne, the Schadenfreudian crime writer, Scarsdale must have hit like a bolt of career lightning.

''Mrs. Harris," tomorrow night at 8, is HBO's version of the story, which means you can hope for more than made-for-TV courtroom rehash. You can hope to get a sense of the case's position in pre-O.J. and even pre-von Bulow America, as the media began to mine the enormous financial potential of legal scandal. You can hope for an updated take on Harris's rage as a divorcee trapped in an unrequited love affair. And you can hope that the illustrious stars, Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley, will put some flesh on the suppressed WASP and her two-timing Jewish cardiologist.

In short, you can hope to find a reason the movie was made. But if you hope, you'll be disappointed.

''Mrs. Harris" is based on Shana Alexander's book ''Very Much a Lady," which was published in 1983. And it probably could have been made back then, nearly a quarter-century ago, since it offers so little in the way of new wrinkles. Harris is still the prim, masochistic lady who lives on emotional bread and water during her 14-year relationship with the man known to friends as Hy. And Tarnower is still the controlling beau who is remotely charming (and, we learn in an odd locker-room scene, well endowed). They have their fateful affair; he makes a marriage proposal, withdraws it, then finds another woman. She explodes in an act of violence whose original intent -- suicide or murder? -- is still unclear. It's all familiar material, peppered with interviews of actors playing the couple's friends and family.

This being HBO, the scenery and design are more sophisticated than the ripped-from-the-headlines movies we find on the networks and Lifetime. Director-writer Phyllis Nagy seems to want ''Mrs. Harris" to recall the classic film noirs in which shaky women shoot men. She wants it to fall into the category of ''Mildred Pierce" and resonate with film history, not with Court TV. Indeed, during the opening credits, an airy montage floats by with Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond squeezing the trigger in ''Sunset Boulevard." And Bening's Harris provides an old-fashioned voice-over throughout the film, remembering the day of the murder.

But despite all this genre homage, the movie remains pointless and inert. The lead performances don't help much, even while the actors are award-magnets who'll undoubtedly be nominated for Emmys. As Tarnower, Kingsley is out of tune. He makes his trademark creepy eyes, as if he has found his character's dark core; but his voice reveals a more tentative connection with Tarnower. His accent strains to sound New York Jewish as he calls his car a ''Jew canoe," but it devolves into some kind of robotic British mumble. Delivering arch lines such as ''Women aren't conquests, they're more like streetcars," Kingsley seems to be telling us nothing but this man was cold.

As Harris, Bening is bent on showing us heat. Her lady-turned-monster is all desperation, with shades of one of Pedro Almodovar's tormented heroines, but without the amped-up melodrama that would make it amusing. Bening certainly acts up a storm, particularly as Harris becomes crazed from the drugs Tarnower was prescribing for her, but she doesn't bring added dimension to the Harris of the tabloids. She's larger than life, but not lifelike. She doesn't even resemble Harris. And her early romantic chemistry with Kingsley (with whom she has already worked on ''Bugsy" and ''What Planet Are You From?") is minimal. She's not boring in the movie, just hard to fathom.

The supporting characters are more fun, although none of them has a lot of screen time. Frances Fisher is comically genteel as Harris's best friend. Cloris Leachman has a good time (if not a good accent) as Tarnower's difficult but loyal sister, who judges her brother on the success of his diet book rather than the failures of his love life. Chloe Sevigny is on hand as Tarnower's new girlfriend, but Nagy doesn't bother exploring the character. And Ellen Burstyn (who played Harris in a 1981 TV movie) shows up as one of Tarnower's former girlfriends; blink and you'll miss her. Like so much about ''Mrs. Harris," she doesn't have much of an impact.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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