Even people who never go to the theater seem to have heard of David Mamet; more than Shepard, Shanley, Hare, or Guare, his name has come to signify serious stage endeavor to the public.
Partly that has been due to his astute courtship of Hollywood. Mamet’s screenplays for The Verdict and The Untouchables not only hark back to classic studio genre models but also helped to make those movies smashes. And Mamet’s commercial knack has combined with his artsy stage rep to allow him to break into film directing. He has made three movies — the excellent House of Games and the lesser Things Change and Homicide. None of them made much money, but no matter: Their tough talk and mystic-macho inscrutability protect them from criticism. Studio execs must figure that if a Mamet film isn’t a hit, they can at least pat themselves on the back for making Art.
Just released on video, Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, LIVE, $94.98, R) is a third kind of Mamet movie — not a script written for hire (his most recent was Hoffa), not one of his own peculiar little films, but an adaptation of one of his plays. In fact, it’s the first true adaptation — by the time Mamet’s bitter relationship comedy Sexual Perversity in Chicago reached the screen (with a screenplay by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue), it was called About Last Night…, starred Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, and had become a fraudulent yuppie valentine. With James Foley’s film version of Glengarry, the movie audience gets to see what theatergoers have known for years.
That’s the theory, at least. But the very process of opening up this tale of Darwinian survival among a group of real estate salesmen dilutes its immediacy — and watching the movie on home video waters it down even more. Mamet, in keeping with his professed creative rule, K.I.S.S. (”Keep It Simple, Stupid”), sets up a situation by giving us no more information than is necessary. A small real estate office. Four men selling parcels of Florida swamp with fancy names like Glengarry Estates. A sales contest: First prize, a Cadillac; second prize, steak knives; third prize, you’re fired. A list of the best leads — names of potential buyers — in the office manager’s desk, gold waiting to be grabbed through wiles or by force. What will each of these men do — broken-down Shelley (Jack Lemmon), fed-up Dave (Ed Harris), worried George (Alan Arkin), and slick Ricky (Al Pacino)? Will they beg for the leads? Will they steal them?
Since this has been derived from a play, they mostly talk about them. But that’s okay here, because Mamet’s chat has an impact that’s nearly physical; his conversations are circular duels of bravado and bluff that every so often explode into verbal cockfights. It’s guy talk boiled down to its elements, and on stage it works because your focus is on actors in a spare pool of stage light. The words are the action, and you dare not look away.
Directors have to pretend the real world’s there, if only by filming an actual office, a genuine bar, people on the other end of the pitch. But verisimilitude curdles Mametspeak and turns it into arch conceit. The burden falls on the actors. Alec Baldwin is frighteningly effective as the shark from the main office who lays down the contest rules, but he’s in and out in eight minutes. Lemmon, on the other hand, falls back on fussbudget self-pity as the old-style salesman who begs the office manager (Kevin Spacey) for a peek at the leads. Lemmon seems confounded by the constant, casual profanity of Mametspeak; worse, home-video viewers may find their attention wandering with the repetitiveness of Shelley’s pleading monologues.
Then there’s Pacino’s Oscar-nominated turn as Ricky Roma, the all-time Zen master of the sales pitch. When we first notice him, he’s in a bar, mesmerizing a sucker (Jonathan Pryce) with eloquent, ridiculous philosophy. Ricky’s gift is that he can make a sale without making any sense, and in the original Broadway production he was played by Joe Mantegna as a brilliant, freakish force of nature. Pacino takes the character in a more intellectual direction — his Ricky is aristocratic, eccentric, serene. That’s valid enough, but somewhere between the actor’s lips and our ears the power is lost. On stage, we’re blinded by the spiel ourselves — it’s just Ricky and his prey in the dark. On a movie screen, we see right through him. And at home, on video, we wouldn’t let this guy in the door. Glengarry Glen Ross has real value as a record of theater, but by the time it gets filtered through film and the TV set, the pitch has gone sour. No sale. B-