Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Re-animating Mamet?

By Mike Gillis

To be honest, I'm tired of hearing about David Mamet and his ear for dialogue. Yes, he can stuff a mean string of words into a character's mouth. I'm still convinced the 1992 film version of his play, "Glenngarry Glen Ross," is a damn fine action picture. Not because things blow up, people do. The dialogue is the action. Great stuff.

As a screenwriter he's hit or miss. Some of his best work, arguably, is collected in his infrequent teleplays for shows like "Hill Street Blues." Some of his screenplays, like "Ronin," are better only because of the director and cast, although that picture will be remembered for boasting one of the most gripping car chases on film, if not much else.

Nonetheless, I was looking forward recently to "Edmond," written by Mamet and based on one of his early plays, and directed by Stuart Gordon, whose "Re-Animator" is revered by horror aficionados everywhere, and rightly so. Gordon and Mamet worked together in theater, early in their careers, and Gordon, in 1974, produced the first performance of Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." For 20 years, Gordon had talked to Mamet about a film adaptation of "Edmond."

So what went wrong?

"Edmond" stars William H. Macy as the picture's namesake, a straight-laced and upstanding businessman and husband, who throws it all away one day in a soul-searching quest for hard answers. His journey leads him to a sexual underground where uninhibited exploration is encouraged. It also leads to murder and prison -- not to mention the intricacies of masculinity, a Mamet staple.

It's not a bad play, although far from Mamet's best. It does seem better suited to the big screen, but Gordon doesn't really get there. Sure some of Mamet's dark humor still works and the smart quips survive. The plays racial tension is oddly diminished, though, despite its overt vulgarity and eagerness to shock. The play is one of Mamet's most personal works, we're often told, written during a nasty divorce, but it's hard to see Edmond's genesis in pain and confusion here.

Gordon deserves credit for making the picture without studio help and not bowing to pressure to soften some of the language -- nine executive producers and several more producers are listed, suggesting how many donors were needed to get the project off the ground -- but he makes the mistake of infusing too much of his own dark genre humor into some of the picture's grimmer moments. Blood rains, as it does in "Re-Animator," for example. It's as if Gordon wakes up behind the camera, and wonders aloud how to shock without ... Karo syrup.

It's a risky and even daring role for Macy, but it's a shame that Gordon isn't willing to risk more. Like breathing new life into some tired words.

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Glengarry Glen Ross