Tag Archive: David Mamet


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Can a movie predicated on an endless series of twists and turns still carry any dramatic or emotional weight even if you can predict every turn before it happens? 90% of the time I would say no it can’t, and that would be the end of the story. Predictability should be the death-knell of any noir or thriller worth its weight in salt, but leave it to playwright auteur David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) to be the exception to that rule. The psychological gamesmanship on display in House of Games is blindingly forecasted almost from the start, and when all is said and done, if you can’t guess what’s going to happen, you’re likely a little dense. But, despite the fact that House of Games is a psychological crime thriller/neo-noir on its surface, it is really a character study into man’s attraction into our darkest impulses, and in that regard, it’s a typical Mamet success.

My rather immense enjoyment of House of Games was unexpected (despite how much I worship Glengarry Glen Ross and mostly enjoyed Wag the Dog) because at the beginning of the film, the movie radiates a sense of theatrical artificiality. House of Games was Mamet’s directorial debut, and considering his background as a stage director, I had initially assumed that he was simply struggling to adjust to the big screen. I realized that was all intentional because House of Games is all about the masks we wear when we interact with others and how virtually all human interactions involve the exploitation of others to fulfill our own needs. And so as the leads of the film slowly start to shed their masks (or are simply better at hiding their mask than others), the lens of theatricality slowly begins to slip away from the film and it is revealed for the stunning psychological insight it is.

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Margaret Ford (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Lindsay Crouse) is a best-selling author and psychiatrist specializing in addiction and compulsive behavior. But, Maggie’s life is empty and she feels that much of her work is meaningless and that her most vulnerable patients are beyond her help. And when a young, troubled gambling addict walks into her office fearful that a $25,000 debt he owes to a bookie may mean his life, Maggie attempts to truly help someone for maybe the first time in her life. But even then, Maggie’s motivations aren’t quite what they appear. At the back room poker game, Maggie meets Mike (Joe Mantegna), the bookie that the gambler says he owes money to. But, in the first of many of the film’s twist, the debt isn’t $25,000. It’s only $800, and soon after, Maggie finds herself seduced into a world of fast-talking con-men and dangerous liars.

Though the film finds itself falling down a somewhat predictable path, I don’t want to ruin anything for those who haven’t seen it (and maybe don’t have my perceptive sense for how noir and crime thrillers work). But, House of Games starts out as what you think may be one woman’s attempt to redeem herself and instead chronicles her descent into a world of crime, easy money, and constant deception. And in that regard, House of Games hits on that classic Mamet theme: a cynical perspective on human nature. In Mike’s world (which quickly becomes Lindsay’s world), there are two types of people: suckers and those with the gumption to part the suckers from their money when given the opportunity. And Mamet extends that dynamic to our entire life where we either suffer or we exploit someone else to alleviate our own suffering. He isn’t saying that’s right. He just observes that’s how it is.

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I have complex feelings towards the performances in this film because of the sense of artificiality that I mentioned at the beginning of the movie. Early dialogue is either delivered in bored monotone or from a place of theatrical bombast. But, they’re doing that intentionally so part of me can’t fault them for this. And, in fact, I suspect that on a future second viewing, I might appreciate this more at the beginning when I understand what’s meant to be done. Because as the film progresses, both Joe Mantegna and Lindsay Crouse (particularly Crouse) deliver hidden layers and unexpected complexities. Crouse finds herself finally free to be herself for the first time in her entire life and without wanting to spoil the film, let it be said that Mantegna proves to be overwhelmingly excellent as a con man and reader of human nature.

I also have somewhat complicated feelings towards the film’s direction. Glengarry Glen Ross worked so well as a movie because the director gave the film a suffocating visual atmosphere that wasn’t even possible in the stage play. And while there are some inspired shots in House of Games, it was also clear that it was Mamet’s first directorial feature and thus the film comes of as slightly stale from time to time. Also, understanding his intentions to make the film seem artificial at times (it draws attention to itself so we, the audience, recognize the hollowness of the characters’ lives), that doesn’t mean there weren’t times where it all felt too forced and it drew me too much out of the action of the film. What happened at moments was that Mamet appeared supremely proud (and rightfully so of his dialogue) and by putting so much theatrical emphasis on words, we were forced to recognize his (admitted) genius. It entered the realm of literary pretense.

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Thankfully, the script more than outweighs any concerns I may have about direction or acting. Mamet is, along with Kenneth Lonergan, one of the great writers of our day. And through his obsession with the darkest impulses of human nature (how capitalism and ambition turn us into monsters in Glengarry or how the pursuit of power can only lead to corruption in Wag the Dog), Mamet fashions tale after tale of men and women at the brink of morality. House of Games shows how the allure of depravity and dishonesty can seduce even the most seemingly upright members of the community. And though House of Games appears to limp out of the gates, once it picks up a head of steam, it flies onward full-stop to a satisfying (if not unexpected) finale and for all fans of Mamet’s work and great neo-noir, it is a must-see film.

Final Score: A-

 

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Glengarry Glen Ross

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More than any other aspect of screen writing, dialogue is the trickiest to nail (at least for me). To find the perfect balance between propelling the story forward without inundating the audience with flat exposition is one of the toughest high wire acts of all. Some writers have a natural gift for it. You could almost just simply listen to an Aaron Sorkin film with the visuals turned off and not miss a beat of what was happening or lose a second of enjoyment. It’s snappy, witty, and fast. Woody Allen is the same way, and though this may seem hyperbolic, I’ve long believed that Deadwood scribe David Milch is the best writer of poetic (yet astonishingly crude) dialogue since William Shakespeare. Playwright David Mamet deserves to rank among these men.

It is often under the leanest conditions that writers deliver the most precise and captivating material. Conversations with Other Women is more or less a man and a woman reminiscing on their past love and their current entanglements for an hour and a half, but it’s romantic drama perfection. You Can Count on Me is on its face a simple story of brothers and sisters who can’t be what the other needs, but a truer depiction of the modern family has yet to be made. Based off Mamet’s own stage play, 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross could be reduced to its base story of four men competing in a sales contest, but beneath that, it’s a stark condemnation of human greed and the perils of ambition. It is a warning of the lengths that men will sink when their careers depend on it, and it is one of the most finely acted films I’ve ever seen.

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Endearingly referred to as “Death of a Fuckin’ Salesman,” Glengarry Glen Ross charts a fateful twenty four hour period at a flailing Chicago real estate firm. When a tough-talking and foul-mouthed representative (Alec Baldwin) from the home offices drops an atomic ultimatum into the mix of a heated sales contest, the four salesmen working at the company and their manager (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil‘s Kevin Spacey) find their world’s turned upside down. The top salesman at the end of the week wins a Cadillac El Dorado. The second best gets a set of steak knives. And the bottom two performers get shit canned.

Every man in the office spirals into his own turmoils and base instincts. Shelly “the Machine Levine (Jack Lemmon) has a sick daughter and is riding a month of bad luck and shitty leads. The oldest man in the office, Levine works harder than nearly everyone else, but the customers haven’t been calling. Dave Moss (Ed Harris) is an angry schemer with dreams of stealing and selling the valuable “Glengarry leads” to a rival agency and wants his coworker George Aaranow (Catch-22‘s Alan Arkin) to do his dirty work. Smooth-talking Rick Roma (Scarface‘s Al Pacino) is the only guy in the office closing any sales but even he finds himself tested when a big deal threatens to fall apart even after the paperwork has been signed.

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We are 306 movies into this blog, and Glengarry Glen Ross has without question the best ensemble cast of any film yet. It won that race and then lapped everybody around it for good measure. The performance from Alec Baldwin perhaps sums this film’s strengths up better than any other performance (although trust me, we’ll get to Pacino and Jack Lemmon in a second). He’s in the film for all of 7 minutes but by the time his seven minutes are up, you may find yourself exhausted from the gushing fountain of vitriol, greed, and obscenities that spews from his mouth (and person). The man is capitalistic excess and evil incarnate and Baldwin turns the small role into one of the greatest one-scene performances in all of cinema.

Baldwin appears early in the film and disappears quickly, but after his monologue, I thought it would be impossible for any one to top him in the film. Apparently, I’d forgotten how great Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon are. Jack Lemmon is primarily known for his comedic roles. With Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon is responsible for some of Hollywood’s most beloved comedies. But he turns Shelley Levine into such a broken, sniveling, desperate man that you forget you’re even watching Jack Lemmon. You just see a man who has fallen to the lowest nadir of any man’s life, and Lemmon makes you feel every last bit of pressure as money and greed and the futility of life suck his very essence away. It was a masterful performance.

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And Al Pacino! After his hammy, overwrought turn in Scarface earlier this week, I’d nearly forgotten how terrific he is when he controls himself and lets the explosions come with precision. Ricky Roma has a silver tongue and we see him ply it over a customer as he tries to make a sale and later have to weave even more intricate lies and run-arounds as he tries to keep that client in the company’s fold. But, as fate and the incompetence of others threatens to unfurl Roma’s machinations, Roma unleashes his not-so-righteous fury on those that threaten to impede him. And watching Pacino flip that switch from cool to terrible is one of the most delightful experiences in all of film-making.

The whole cast is wonderful from Arkin’s spineless Aaronow to Ed Harris’s manipulative Moss to Kevin Spacey’s bureaucratic Williamson. It would be too easy to spend this entire review raving about how wonderful and nuanced each performance is. These actors gel with the type of coordination and rhythm that you only seem to find on television programs where the same actors have been performing together for years. Mamet’s world feels lived in and the intimacy each performer brings to the table makes you feel each stab and wound as these men betray and assault one another to survive.

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As much as Glengarry Glen Ross brutally savages the spiritually decayed men that inhabit its walls and sell their souls for real estate and fleeting success, the film’s true indictment rings against the system and culture that forces Ricky Roma an Shelley Levine to be the kind of men they become. These men are forced to fight tooth and nail for useless leads. They have to degrade their own ethics and morals to close on these worthless leads and only then will the company let them touch the real leads that might lead them to fruitful deals. The original stage play was one of the first major indictments of Reagan-era greed and ennui, and it rings even truer today as a haunting prediction of the spiritual state of our nation.

Glengarry Glen Ross is one of those films that has it all. It has a monumentally important story. It’s characters are as fleshed-out and developed as any that have hit the big screen. The performances are universally sublime. There isn’t wasted second in a story that is the definition of efficient. And the dialogue is as sumptuous a feast as you’re likely to ever find. It has been six months (Margaret in August) since a film received the honors I’m about to bestow upon this film, but nothing has come close to deserving it in a while. Glengarry Glen Ross is cinematic perfection and, simply put, one of the best films I’ve reviewed so far.

Final Score: A+