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David Mamet: Too smart for his characters

Good lord I’m tired of David Mamet.

Last night, we rented Edmond because I’d read that it was a taut, twisty, noir-ish thriller that didn’t suffer from the flaws of later Mamet. Or at least that’s what dripped into my brain pan from some reviews I read.


As usual, his characters speak in an unnatural rhythm, repeating endlessly. They are all little people struggling with the author’s big ideas, but the author thinks his characters are too little to be having ideas as big as his, so invents a form of speech uttered by no actual people ever. As the anti-hero, William H. Macy, moves through his existential (= inexplicable) crisis, we learn that nothing motivates him except the scriptwriter’s desire to be deep. As for the acting, it was hard to tell if it sucked because of the direction or because the script is impossible to speak convincingly. It was painful to watch good actors (and Denise Richards) stuck with those words to say.

Glengarry Glen Ross was the one good movie for which Mamet was the sole script writer, and, while there’s more to like in it than in the rest of his catalog—the plot has a surprise, sort of—it too has a condescending view of Ordinary Folks that thinks they need to be elevated into capital letters by speaking in an unnatural patois. Glengarry Glen Ross has one great role in it (the boss, played by Alec Baldwin in the movie) and a whole bunch of great actors struggling to escape the didactic machine.

Not that Mamet does mechanisms well. House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner are both complex, box-within-a-box, hoax-and-fraud movies that get your head spinning until you think there is no possible way Mamet is going to be able to resolve all the pieces, and then everyone gets run over by a truck. Feh.

The movie scripts that he’s done that are not Mamety are surprisingly conventional and not very interesting: The Postman Always Rings Twice, We’re No Angels, The Untouchables, The Verdict, Hoffa, Ronin, Hannibal. Vanya on 42nd Street I actually liked, but was cowritten with Andre Gregory. But now it’s time for me to learn my lesson: If David Mamet is the only writer and it is reviewed as a David Mamet film, I’m not going. Unless I hear it’s really good. Because I am a fool.

By the way, as William H. Macy entered the screen in Edmond, I said out loud that I’ve seen Macy’s butt in more movies than I’ve seen the butt of any other actor or actress. “Please,” I said, “let this movie be free of Macy-butt.” But even that prayer went unanswered.

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7 Responses to “David Mamet: Too smart for his characters”

  1. Hmm. My favorite Mamet is “About Last Night,” which I (or at least my 25-year-old self) thought was terrific. (Of course, it had a different screenwriter from Mamet’s original play, so perhaps this proves your theory.) “House of Games” was incredibly watchable and I don’t remember the sense of feeling cheated at the end, any more than, say, “The Usual Suspects”.

    “Glengarry Glen Ross” always struck me as as a movie whose whole was significantly less than the sum of its parts, some of which were very good.

  2. Dennis,

    All I remember about the ending of “House of Games” was that I felt cheated.

    I like your summary of “Glengarry.”

    “Wag the Dog” was sort of fun at the time, but was a little obvious.

    I’m obviously a little more pissed off than I have cause to be…

  3. “All I remember about the ending of “House of Games” was that I felt cheated.”

    Conned. That’s the point!

    [I thought it was serviceable, if a little clunky at the end]

  4. I like the Mamet TV show “the unit.” It’s got the mamet patois, but the stories seem well grounded and a bit more mundanely realistic (maybe “gritty”) I assume because of the influence of Shawn Ryan, of “The Shield” fame.

    Plus it has President David Palmer from “24” in the lead role, and he rules.

  5. David Mamet is an prime example of ” the Emperor has no clothes”. Edmond sent me scream from the room. What a piece of retro – shite! We’ve moved on.

  6. I saw “Eugene” last night. One line caught my attention, and I also heard it in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

    The line: “Euclid Avenue.”

    I grew up in Berwyn, Illinois, about 10 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. My family lived on Wesley Avenue, which was one short block east of Euclid Avenue.

    The streets run north into Oak Park.

    In “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Jack Lemmon’s character has to call on a prospect who lives on Euclid Avenue in Oak Park.

    It’s probably a coincidence that David Mamet refers to the same street in these two works, written years apart.

    If anyone has another explanation, please let me know. Thank you.

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