To hear David Mamet tell it, his two-character play Oleanna is such a lightning rod that, all over the country, couples who come to it wind up shouting at each other in the lobby and often leave separately. Judging from the public-radio interview I heard recently, Mamet is quite taken by this calculated divisiveness: Like homewreckers everywhere, he seems delighted with a job well done.

Let's hope the artist is overestimating his effect on life. The movie version of Oleanna (technically, it's no more than a play enacted with the camera running) will now bring arguments about sexual harassment, political correctness and academic arrogance to a wider audience. Quite a prospect: If Mamet has his way, the multiplexes will be littered with hurled popcorn, and divorce lawyers will be handing out business cards in the parking lots. (Local audiences will have to wait a little longer to get in on that: Due to a late scheduling change, the film's Denver opening has been postponed until after Christmas.)

However, none of this obscures the fact that Oleanna (the title is lifted from an old Kingston Trio song mocking suburban "utopia") is a highly artificial stretch of bickering. The talking-head characters--a pedantic college professor (William H. Macy) so full of himself and his campus power trip that you feel like slapping him silly, and a floundering student (Debra Eisenstadt) so whiny and manipulative that you want to ship her off to the University of Guam--are not characters at all. They are points of view. They are soulless mouthpieces in the latest outbreak of the war between men and women. And that falsifies the issues at hand, which also include elitism, the culture of victimhood, the value of higher education, litigiousness and the urge to power.

Polemicists may love the thing--they usually love negative campaign ads, too, because they provide a chance to vent rage in staccato sound bites. Likewise, almost nothing in this stifling, constricted film feels human or real--not the Mamet dialogue, with its patented stops, starts and abrasions; not the play's highly synthetic situation, in which an unscheduled student-teacher conference escalates into a sexual-harassment suit, then into violence; certainly not the "characters," whose mutual rigidity, belligerence and sheer pigheadedness distance us from them even as Mamet distances himself from the obligation to answer the questions he poses.

Five minutes' worth of the Hill/Thomas hearings or two minutes of the Tailhook scandal on the evening news have more life and texture than this entire construction, this harangue with pretensions of tragedy. Date-night arguments in the lobby aside, it's the kind of sly political litmus test that deserves to be thrown back in the face of the tester so that intelligent people can work out their differences intelligently.


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