Originally shown March 17, 2010
David Mamet makes movies, but only because there’s more money in it than making plays. The Tony-winning playwright behind American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow has been in the writing business since 1970, and according to his Wikipedia page he’s never gone three consecutive years without releasing work for the stage. The first adaptation of his work for the screen was of his most decorated play, the one which won him a Pulitzer in 1984: James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross.
The movie is about five real estate salesmen at a ramshackle operation in Chicago. Other than wildly successful Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), they’re struggling to make any sales with their aging leads. After a visit from an abrasive higher-up (Alec Baldwin), all of them are threatened with being fired, even former legend, now bottom-dweller, Sheldon Levine (Jack Lemmon). They have to resort to tricky, underhanded, and possibly illegal means of making their sales.
In my lifetime, the most well-received versions of plays going to the screen would probably be this film and A Few Good Men. The reason this is the inferior movie of the two is that it doesn’t even try to use the medium of film to deliver the play’s dialogue in a different way. The camera doesn’t try to capture the actors in a non-stagey way except during Baldwin’s sequence (which was written specifically for the film). No effort is made to expand the film’s locations so that they would look real; the Chinese restaurant in particular looks exactly like a stage set. In A Few Good Men, at least they made the effort to find a real D.C. row house to serve as Tom Cruise’s home, and make the Cuba locations look sort of like Cuba. The locations in this film look like Hollywood Back Lot, U.S.A.
The upside is that those locations are filled with great actors delivering David Mamet dialogue. The play has such a great reputation that a legion of A-list actors were turned down for the film, including Joe Mantegna, who had won a Tony for playing Ricky Roma. The end result is that the actors who are in the movie are the best of the best of the best, especially for the roles that they received. Pacino got an Oscar nomination for playing Roma, and he does deliver the film’s best performance, probably because he had been acting in American Buffalo just before filming and was familiar with Mamet’s trademark staccato dialogue. Lemmon’s performance is a bit more artificial, but even then it’s so iconic that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role of Sheldon Levine, especially after you’ve seen The Simpsons‘ parody character Gil.
So why is Mamet’s dialogue so good? Because he is one of the best in the world – maybe the best – at writing for exactly the format which the audience will be seeing. Consider the following exchange that Wikipedia singles out, between Moss (Ed Harris) and Aaronow (Alan Arkin):
Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just.
No, we’re just.
We’re just talking about it.
We’re just speaking about it. As an idea.
As an idea.
We’re not actually talking about it.
The repetition of the same phrases over and over again might seem a little silly if you read it – indeed, it’s a common joke amongst those who write parodies of Mamet’s dialogue. And if this dialogue were “performed” for the wrong sort of theater, it might be awkward then also. But for a movie, or for a play directed in Mamet’s preferred style (“just hit your mark and say your lines”), it’s absolutely perfect. When you watch the scene, there’s no question about the exact contents of Moss’ and Aaronow’s thoughts, which is as it should be.
The actual content of the play doesn’t have all that much to say about business. Real estate salesmen use underhanded tricks to get you to buy into a terrible investment? Tell me something I don’t know. However, the movie does have quite a lot to say about why people say yes to a pitch, and what kind of code you have to live by when dishonest pitches are all you have to offer. My favorite subplot in the film is Roma’s pitch to Lingk (Jonathan Pryce), which is so subtle that you aren’t even sure Roma is a salesman for a while into the film.
The film climaxes around Lingk’s second thoughts, and the complicated con game that Roma and Levine have to run just to keep his money. I found it very interesting that for all of the ways that their management pits them against each other with their jobs at stake, Roma and Levine could still run a trust-based con together. Levine is on hard times now, but at least his long history of success has earned him respect, respect that can help someone else make money at the very least. It isn’t much, and it doesn’t pay the bills, but this movie lets us know that’s something.
Reviewed by Mark Young