Pulitzer or no Pulitzer, David Mamet's 1984 play Glengarry Glen Ross is not a masterpiece. Its salient metaphor, the ritualistic hard selling of worthless marshlands with quasi-poetic names such as Glengarry Highlands and Glen Ross Farms, is bludgeon-heavy in the extreme, this despite the recessionary economy of the Bush years that has lent the work some prescience and topicality. Structurally, there is nothing remarkable about the second act's mightily predictable whodunit. The play is too obviously modelled on Miller's Death of a Salesman -- and too conscious of updating it -- to greatly impress. But such is the power of the hyperreal language Mamet creates for his players, and in turn, the complexity of rhythms the actors are required to maintain, that a good stage production of Glengarry gives the impression of a masterful playwright working at white heat. That relentless, contemporary urban music is Mamet's secret, and the original Broadway cast, which included Joe Mantegna's Ricky Roma and Robert Prosky's Shelley "The Machine" Levene, provided a polyphony of sounds of Chaucerian grit and Shakespearean linguistic virtuosity. It was brutally entertaining theater.
Glengarry Glen Ross is a play about desperation: Four real estate salesmen toil in spiritually vanquished isolation on the phones in an attempt to outperform one another selling bogus real estate. Their pitches and techniques, variously engaging, oily, and pitiful, serve a firm where the top salesman gets a Cadillac El Dorado and the bottom salesman gets fired. What gives the play some of its biting irony and funniness is the sense that these hypercombustible agents constitute a kind of life force. Their existential displacement notwithstanding, the energy of their labors and sheer cutthroat vitality possess a momentum and inevitability that sweep the audience along for a nightmarish joyride across America's darkest corridors of the soul. Only in the aftermath of Mamet's first-act fireworks do you begin to understand what Glengarry Glen Ross really is -- a tragedy.
Therefore, it is astonishing that the more subtle medium of film has yielded an adaptation (by the author) of this fine play that sacrifices its marvelous comic-dramatic progression in favor of heavy-weather atmospherics and intrusive melancholy. But the director is not Sidney Lumet, who was first slated to direct and who understands the realism of David Mamet's world better than most; alas, it is James Foley, heretofore the director of two agreeably evocative films dealing with outsiders, the good At Close Range and the much better After Dark, My Sweet, adapted from Jim Thompson's novel. Foley is the film's biggest miscalculation.
I wasn't joking when I mentioned heavy weather, by the way: Throughout the course of this short story we're treated to endless shots of cloud cover and rainfall -- the chiaroscuro is thickly laid on and omnipresent. So grim is this backdrop, in fact, that you would think James Foley's vision of greed and corruption could be mistaken for Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung -- an opera in which wet trenchcoats loom and telephones ring all over Valhalla. In Foley's hands, the seediness Mamet gives only scarce visual clues to in the play has all the subtlety of a camera entering the posterior for a colonoscopy. We're intended to assess the depressed surroundings and in them find telltale signs of human emptiness, but it's the filmmaking that is truly depressed and moribund. Miller's Death of a Salesman is Tootsie next to this.
And what of the famous powerhouse cast? In certain circles, there is no question that Jack Lemmon as Shelley Levene would elicit enthusiastic bravos, and as far as the imbecile Hollywood film community is concerned, Lemmon may indeed finish his hat trick and take home a third Oscar (he won Best Supporting Actor for Mister Roberts in the Fifties and Best Actor for Save the Tiger in the Seventies, and has been nominated umpteen times). But Lemmon's belated Willy Loman performance is hardly a match for the strength of personality Prosky's "Machine" delivered on-stage. Prosky communicated pathos; Lemmon, on the other hand, is plain pathetic. And what he offers us instead is another compendium of tics, shirks, bellows, giggles, whines, grimaces, and cries, each as worn as a leather briefcase after 50 years of parading before the camera. The tears alone could corrode a cachet of Academy Award statuettes.
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Conversely, Al Pacino, after a somnolent start in a bar where he woos a potential sucker (played poorly by the usually dependable Jonathan Pryce), gets progressively better. It's been a long while since Pacino, who appeared all washed up a few years ago, managed to salivate this well on-screen -- here he eats up Roma's ruthlessness. Luckily his looks are just right: Pacino's face suggests a combination of sustained virility and ruined glamour. His staccato line readings also lift the film from its episodic status and charge the actors around him, especially Kevin Spacey, who plays the embattled firm manager on the receiving end of Roma's tirades. Spacey's interacting is effective, and he manages to convey hardness, compassion, and unease concurrently. Alan Arkin, like Lemmon a tiresome, mannered actor, plays with terrific control a humiliated salesman obsessed with bad luck. Ed Harris, the fourth peddler, is on and off in a flash.
Bizarrely, it is Alec Baldwin, in a role written by Mamet especially for the film, that seems to create the strongest impression in a battle-cry monologue setting the conditions for the employees' triumph, survival, and dismissal. Here is the writing's most deliberately vulgar flourish, and in Baldwin it finds its condign exponent, alternately trashy and compelling. But what is sadly missing from Glengarry Glen Ross is the volcanic fury of Mamet's symphony of salesmanship, the cacophonous calls and shifting tempos of his thoroughly modern theatrical music. The performers fare well enough, but in no manner do they constitute an ensemble. They play straight to the camera, with all the self-consciousness and tunnel vision of a premeditated con job -- they're pulling an even faster one on the audience.
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
Directed by James Foley; written by David Mamet; with Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, and Alec Baldwin.