When movie actors talk in reverent tones about David Mamet, Team Hollywood's designated thinker, it's probably not because they regard him as the nation's leading playwright. Or because of his famous insights into the emptiness of the American Dream and the casual cruelties of the business world. Or even because the "filmization" of each Mamet play offers a few bedeviled stars artistic escape from the handsomely paid indignities of their last summer action movie.
Simply put, Mamet offers actors more verbiage per foot of film than almost any other writer on the planet. There's nothing actors like better than the sound of their own voices, and in this regard, Mamet is the ultimate sugar daddy. Little matter that much of his oft-imitated dialogue is jittery busywork (ever actually listen to that stream of bilge Jack Lemmon sets loose in Glengarry Glen Ross?). The point is that with Mamet, the actor gets to emote to his heart's content, gets to talk endlessly, gets to "act" with a capital A. The play's not really the thing. The word count is.
Enter American Buffalo. The first of Mamet's scorching indictments of dog-eat-dog commerce in these United States debuted on stage in 1975, and two decades later--a movie at last--it owes the same debts it always did to old skeptics like Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets and, in passing, the absurdists. Mamet's small-time thieves, Don and Teach, who sit around a gloomy secondhand store planning a rare-coin heist, are still the soul of striving gone sour in a world of betrayals. Don's young gofer and surrogate son, Bobby, is still the embodiment of a corrupted legacy. The mysterious, idealized character who never shows up--Fletcher, their Godot--is still a dreamy remnant of dignity for men who don't remember how to dream.
Talk. That's what Don and Teach remember how to do. Like the bloodless, synthetic gambler in House of Games, the grabby real estate hustlers of Glengarry Glen Ross or (heaven help us!) the bickering professor and student in Oleanna, Mamet's early-vintage characters can rattle on endlessly. This time they fill the air with paranoid speeches about the value of friendship and the necessities of business while largely misunderstanding both.
"I'm not here to smother you in theory," the conniving but inept Teach tells his co-conspirator. Oh no? Like many a Mamet type, Teach is all theory and very little action, a bundle of words wrapped in a shabby suit and a greasy haircut. You know from the start that Don and Teach are about to botch the coin burglary, one way or another. The only question is how much psychological damage they'll inflict on each other (and young Bobby) in a long night of agonized scheming, comic bumbling and self-doubt.
Can't you just feel Dustin Hoffman in the room?
Half a dozen high-octane actors wanted to play Teach, for peanuts--ars gratia artis and all that--but how could Mamet and young director Michael Corrente (Federal Hill) resist the man who gave us both Ratso Rizzo and a memorable Willy Loman? Indeed, in this detailed, frenetic performance, Hoffman recalls the pathetic, scummy charm of the former, the delusional tragedy of the latter and the aching humanity of them both. The actor has said Teach is the dramatic equal of Miller's timeless Willy, one of the great roles in the American theater, and even if time proves him wrong, it's worth the price of admission to hear Hoffman ride Mamet's verbal crests: "You got to trust your instincts, right or wrong," the grimy thief says. "It's kick ass or kick ass, Don, and I'd be lying if I told you any different..."
In other words (lots of them), the desperate Teach will kick any ass--Don's, Bobby's, even, inadvertently, his own--to pull off his lowlife shot at wealth and power. This is, of course, the same ground Mamet covers to the point of obsession in later plays--the way ruthless competition demeans the spirit. Odd to say, there's something almost refreshing in hearing Mamet's message again in its pioneer form. The play may be frayed around the edges after two decades, as well as a bit tame--and this is certainly a filmed play, lacking much spark of the art cinematic--but Hoffman is thoroughly compelling.
His foil is Dennis Franz, famous among boob-tubers as the rumpled and troubled Detective Andy Sipowicz on the hit series N.Y.P.D. Blue. Like Mamet, Franz's roots are in Chicago, and although the glum, Depression-ish neighborhood where American Buffalo is staged could belong to any city that time and the urban redevelopers have neglected, Franz brings to the greedy but bewildered store owner Donny Dubrow a down-and-dirty Chicago tinge. He also works beautifully with Hoffman as a man whose last reserves of decency are being drained out of him. It tires you just to look at Donny's exhausted face, and that's as it should be.
Mamet and Corrente's minor innovation here is the casting of a fifteen-year-old black kid named Sean Nelson (who made a name for himself as the twelve-year-old drug runner in Fresh) as Bobby, a part heretofore reserved for an actor in his twenties. Bobby is the pivot of the piece: While Teach and Donny wait in vain for Fletcher--the poker buddy and supposedly able thief who will put "depth on the team" that is to commit the burglary--it's Bobby's soul that gets buffeted about. Caught between proving his manhood and running away, he starts to look like the real casualty in the men's war between pride and depravity.
In the end, even the frog-faced, beaten-up Teach, barely running on the fumes of illusion, must conclude: "We all live like cavemen...there is nothing out there." This nihilistic cry in the wilderness is the kind of thing Mamet would wrap in an even heavier blanket of words in later plays, but it's the essence of all his work. In a world bereft of trust and brought low by materialism, we are cavemen.
Talkative, actorish cavemen, to be sure--cavemen in love with the torrents of dialogue that have been provided them. But cavemen all the same.
American Buffalo. Screenplay by David Mamet, from his play. Directed by Michael Corrente. With Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson.
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