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TELEVISION REVIEW

Rockefeller story: glasses half empty

In “Who Is Clark Rockefeller?’’ Eric McCormack plays the title character and Sherry Stringfield his wife, who first met in New York in 1993. In “Who Is Clark Rockefeller?’’ Eric McCormack plays the title character and Sherry Stringfield his wife, who first met in New York in 1993. (Ben Mark Holzberg/Lifetime Television)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 12, 2010

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Well, they got the glasses right, those creepy, oversized Clark Kent frames that seem to lift Clark Rockefeller from merely nuts to flat-out crazypants. The makers of Lifetime’s “Who Is Clark Rockefeller?’’ have fitted star Eric McCormack with a pair of black, thick-rimmed specs that may be the best biopic prop since Julia Child’s plucked chicken.

The rest of the two-hour movie, which premieres tomorrow night at 9? It’s just OK. But what can you expect from a Lifetime true-life scandal story, a genre that aims to be more like People magazine than Vanity Fair. “Who Is Clark Rockefeller?’’ is as superficial and bland as a docudrama, and if it were anything more, I’d be thoroughly surprised. Like Lifetime’s recent take on Gloucester’s teen pregnancies, “The Pregnancy Pact,’’ the movie doesn’t even try to get at universal truths — about the fake aristocrat accused of snatching his daughter off a Back Bay street, or the smart woman who was fooled by him, or the public that was fascinated by their story.

Nor does “Who Is Clark Rockefeller?’’ embrace its potential for camp humor, beyond the glasses and the way the smirky McCormack wears them in the early part of the movie as he name-drops Henry Kissinger’s dog. With the right kind of playful tone — think “Reversal of Fortune’’ and its wickedly sly spin on the von Bulow case — a true-crime story about a society wannabe and the people he duped could be ripe indeed.

The script opens with Rockefeller’s kidnapping of his daughter, Reigh, in Boston in summer 2008, then jumps backward. We see the start of his relationship with Sandra Boss (Sherry Stringfield) in New York in 1993, amid the fake art on his apartment walls and his tales to her about losing his parents when he was 17. Rockefeller is compulsive about charming everyone in his path with his jaunty wit and his Rockefeller references, and Boss succumbs. It’s only when she sours on their marriage, after working long hours to support his lazy, to-the-manor-born lifestyle, that she learns he is a fraud who was born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter.

As the movie zeroes in on Rockefeller’s scheming and lies, we flash back even further to his 1970s days, when he rented a guesthouse from a California couple whose mysterious disappearance remains unsolved. Boss is convinced that, no matter how sick her ex-husband may be, he is not capable of murder. But the movie repeatedly reminds us that Boss is an unreliable judge of character, as the police keep asking her how she believed a man who had no Social Security number, no money, and no family.

When Rockefeller ran off with Reigh, known to her parents as Snooks, the police search for them was intensely dramatic. And, as the movie shows, the hunt was national news. “Who Is Clark Rockefeller?’’ doesn’t aim to re-create that suspense, so much as offer a profile of a pathological serial liar. That’s fine, except the script, by Edithe Swensen, never successfully brings us inside Rockefeller’s thinking, never tries to dissect his fierce need to con.

One of the hurdles for local viewers who tracked every detail of the story will be the setting of “Who Is Clark Rockefeller?’’ McCormack overcomes his lovable “Will & Grace’’ persona enough to evoke a nasty, deluded person, but, alas, Toronto never quite passes as Boston. The filmmakers may be able to trick the rest of the country, but they can’t fool us.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

WHO IS CLARK ROCKEFELLER? Starring: Eric McCormack, Sherry Stringfield

On: Lifetime

Time: Tonight, 9-10:30