I’d have to give more thought than I want to try to decide if David Mamet (1947-) is the most overrated living American writer but for me he’s definitely a contender for that prize. Maybe his plays work better on the stage than on the screen (and I’ve only seen movie adaptations of Mamet plays), but I find “American Buffalo” (1996) numbing, “Oleana” (1994) contrived and dull, and the foul-mouthed “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992) tedious. (Bleak, I can deal with!) Of the adaptation of “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” I didn’t even remember the movie title (“About Last Night…”, 1986), though I remember that Rob Lowe starred in it.
I might as well start with the title, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which I don’t like, which for no reason I can discern combines the name of two Florida real estate developments that a group of Chicago salesmen are trying to sell: Glengarry Highlands and Glen Ross Farms. The properties are dubious investments and it is difficult to find and convince buyers. Finding prospective buyers is particularly difficult and the “leads” that come down from some central office are much longed for and sought by the four salesmen, Shelley (once “The Machine”) Levene (Jack Lemmon), his currently hot former protégé, Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), and the floundering Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and George Aaronow (an unusually restrained Alan Arkin, playing desperation more quietly than, for instance,” in “Catch-22”).
As if their struggles weren’t enough, a vicious and terminally smug corporate representative Blake (Alec Baldwin at his smarmiest) visits to motivate them. The one who sells the most the month (in who knows what year?) will receive a Cadillac. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is being fired. That there are four of them is not acknowledged, though I presume only two salesmen will still have jobs the next month.
There is also an office manager, John Williamson (a then largely unknown Kevin Spacey, between “Wise Guy” and his Oscar-winning turn in “The Usual Suspects”), who seems like a doormat who turns out to be more alert than Shelley (in particular) realized.
I will readily stipulate that Jack Lemmon is great, both desperately scraping and exultant. Pacino is pretty restrained, though he has an impressive scene of playing a customer with the odd name of James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce) and a gentle one of letting Lemmon’s Shelley gloat. I am less impressed than others have been by the two scenes in cars in pouring rain of Harris and Arkin and of Lemmon and Spacey, in both instances planning misdeeds and think the painful attempt by Pryce going into the office to get back his money runs too long.
Very little was done to get the movie out of the stage set of the office. I guess this is supposed to bond viewers to the claustrophobia of the Sisyphean salesmen, and immerse the viewer in the constricted world (far from “realism,” I think Mamet’s locations are artificial and the “realistic dialogue” is very, very mannered, and stagey and even the rain is unnaturally steady a downpour). I can feel somewhat sorry for all of the salesmen, but can only identify (and only somewhat) with the customer trying to get his money back (Pryce).
I think that Pacino and Arkin were funnier as the aged “Stand Up Guys” last year. Pacino was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar (the year he won best actor for the dubious “Scent of Woman”) as Roma (the role for which Mamet-regular Joe Mantegna won a Tony). Lemmon was named Best Actor by the National Board of Review (and won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival). And the play had won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama (without the Coffee is for closers” speech Mamet added for Alec Baldwin in the movie script).
And director James Foley, who had directed Christopher Walken (the third of the “Stand Up Guys”) in “At Close Range” in 1986, more recently directed Kevin Spacey in nine of the 26 episodes of “House of Cards.” (David Fincher directed the episodes nominated for awards.) Mamet wrote and directed Pacino in/as “Phil Spector” (2013) and I should admit that I like some of what Mamet has written directly for the screen better than I like his adaptations of his stage plays. (A notable exception was the wretched “The Spanish Prisoner, which he wrote and directed” and which I think is far worse than “Glengarry Glen Ross”).