You can actually kind of see why Lohan was given this role, as she does genuinely share similarities with Taylor - both have turbulent personal lives, and both were hounded by the media. Actually, the movie makes a big thing of Taylor's fame coinciding with the rise of the paparazzi, presumably in some kind of misguided attempt to suggest that Lohan is the inevitable descendant of the Cleopatra star. So, yes, that makes sense.
The only problem is that Liz & Dick is bad. Like, really, really bad.
It would be unfair to lay all the blame for this turgid slog at Lohan's feet; actually, the movie is terrible on several levels. It's not just the actors, either; for a film attempting to recreate the height of Hollywood glamour, it's awfully cheap. The sets are noticeably shoddy, especially the outdoor locations. We travel all over the globe, from Rome to Hungary to Monte Carlo to Mexico - and every time, it's clear that at any moment the whole scenery could come crashing down to reveal a grey hangar wall and a desultory lighting rig.
In one particularly noticeable moment, Liz & Dick take a little stroll in Gstaad following their first of many reunions; they sit near a castle, but in my head all I could hear was a voice screaming: "That is just a painting!" It's not even as if the scene was necessary, because they say nothing (and don't think that it's a meaningful scene needing no dialogue, because nothing is said implicitly either. There is nothing subtle about Liz & Dick.) Even when they go to the premiere of their movie The V.I.P.s, it's the worst fake cinema screen I've ever seen in a supposedly serious drama.
On top of that half-assedness, the show's producers make the frankly bizarre decision to structure the film in a completely topsy-turvy way. We start off with Richard's first sighting of Liz at a pool party, then zip forward to "the last day of Richard Burton's life" (the show's caption, not mine) as he writes a final letter to her, then we're shot straight into an annoying framing device in which both Taylor and Burton speak about their romance in a darkened room, in some sort of homage to shows like Inside The Actor's Studio. Plus, it makes no sense given that the duo look back over their entire lives but stay the same age. I can only assume they're meant to be ghosts.
So that motif is particularly annoying; it's below the standard of a high school drama piece, asking Bowler and Lohan to delve into depths of character that just aren't there. Seriously - the closest Liz and Dick get to being three-dimensional in this film is in the opening credits, when we see still photographs of them. They're just as cardboard as the sets.
If that structure wasn't irritating enough, the editing adds to the movie's problems by jumping from scene to scene in a disjointed way with absolutely no sense of the passage of time, except for the on-screen captions (it's hard to get rid of the nagging suspicion that these were added at the last minute to explain the fact that Liz has aged about 20 years in half an hour, with no discernible change or development in her character.)
And, more than that, the film just gets boring. It's entertaining enough to hate-watch for the first ten minutes, giggling over the laughable production values and seeing the actors hamstrung by lines like: "You're now a beautiful woman with depths of oceans in your violet eyes, the promise of a ripe plum in your soft firm lips, and a spilling white hot bosom", or "I don't loathe you, I hate you" or "We could go to the pool?" "I don't need a pool, I've got a whole ocean in you" (I don't know what this means, but it sounds vaguely unsanitary.)
But after a while, the relentless repetitiveness of it all just becomes wearing. Liz and Dick have sex and act all loved-up, and then they argue, and then they reconcile. Lather, rinse, repeat. The melodrama of the arguments can be entertaining at first (especially Dick's use of words like "harridan"), but soon the ridiculously self-indulgent running time begins to feel like an ordeal. I started watching Liz & Dick feeling perfectly healthy; by the time it had ended, I had genuinely developed a pretty bad cold. I don't think this is necessarily a coincidence.
Because while Bowler and Lohan - and the supporting cast, such as they are - are genuinely hamstrung by shoddy workmanship and dodgy dialogue, they do have to take some of the blame for the horror the movie has become. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are two of the most legendary actors of our time, so surely they deserve a better treatment than this? I have no doubt that both of them were difficult, complex figures - but surely neither was as downright hateable as Bowler and Lohan (and the script) make them.
Burton is reduced to a bitter drunk who seems obsessed with the fact that he has never won an Oscar, while Taylor becomes a jealous shrew who can be paid off easily with jewels. There is nothing more to them than that, and there needs to be if we're to care about anything that happens to them. The flat-as-a-pancake treatment of the duo makes the film even harder to watch, as dark moments in the pair's life - Taylor's suicide attempt, for example - become hard to take seriously or invest in. The film doesn't deal well with the cultural impact of the duo, either, with the famous "erotic vagrancy" charge from the Vatican being flung in to provide some "historical context"... without any effort to make it fit with the rest of the movie.
And yes, the acting is bad. Even putting aside Bowler's mind-bendingly strange accent and the supposedly dramatic pauses that come with the sense that the actors have forgotten their lines, the stars struggle far more than they should (Bowler, after all, was fine in True Blood, but here he flounders. I particularly enjoyed a moment when he yelled after his wife Sybil, but only because it was so uncannily reminiscent of British sitcom Fawlty Towers) Everything in the movie becomes a melodrama - this film must have used up Hollywood's entire supply of sugar glass, and we even get some Days of Our Lives-style slaps.
But Lohan is perhaps the worst offender with her frenzied eye-rolling - she looks as if she's hoping to track down and swat a particularly stealthy fly whenever someone says something of import to her. Plus, I lost count of the number of times Liz cried with no tears (or, if you're lucky, a strategically placed drop of water rolling down the cheek.) But surely director Lloyd Kramer should have intervened when Lohan's Liz responds to bad news by actually putting her hand over her mouth? Mind you, a full-on faceplant faint when Liz gets some bad news is almost worth the price of admission on its own.
Still, Lohan shows a minuscule glimmer of hope in the very last scene of the movie when we get a glimpse at her actual talent; it's just a shame this wasn't mined more throughout the movie, because as much as I want Lohan to have a glittering comeback, this is not the vehicle that will do it for her. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that a TV movie isn't complex or competent or even watchable, but I'd hoped for so much more, because this is just execrable.
17 minutes in to the movie, Liz suggests that she loves Dick and uses the phrase "end of story", but I could only sigh: "If only." Instead, there was still around an hour and ten minutes of truly shoddy filmmaking to get through, where everything is presented with a "this will do" mentality (even the Italian accents on the paparazzi are farcical). But maybe I'm being too harsh, because there was one time I related to Ms Taylor - it came when she was recovering from her first of many splits from Richard. "I'm SO BORED," she yells. Me too, Liz. Me too.
Liz & Dick airs on Sunday (November 25) at 9pm on Lifetime.