Film Reviews

The Verbal and the Profane

David Mamet's 1975 play American Buffalo shocked audiences with its profanity and its unsparing examination of what Mamet characterized as "the American Dream gone bad." Mamet garnered the New York Drama Critics Circle Award with his bleak tale of a pair of lowlife schemers and their half-baked plot to rip off a rare coin collection. In an amazing twist of fate, minutes after attending the preview screening of the new film adaption of American Buffalo, I bumped into the film's two main characters -- Teach, who had seen the movie, and Donny, who was waiting for his reaction. I overheard the following dialogue:

"So what?"
"So did you like this thing?"
"Which thing?"
"This play. This fucking play you just saw."
"I didn't see a play. I saw a movie."

"Play, movie. What's the fucking difference? You partook of popular culture. You participated in an act of spectatorship. You entered into a theater and became part of an audience. Did you like what you saw?"

"Is it just me? Am I the only one who knows there's a gigantic difference between a play and a movie? A play is a play. A movie is a different thing. A movie is Demi Moore flashing some skin. Aliens blowing up the White House. Killer tornadoes. Chase scenes. Tom fucking Cruise. A movie is business. A movie is action. A movie is sex. A movie is a thing that earns obscene profits for putting pimply-faced popcorn munchers into seats. Commerce masquerading as entertainment. A play is a very different thing. A play is words. A play is theater. A play is not a business proposition. You don't get rich producing plays. Plays make art, not money."

"I stand corrected. So did you like this movie?"
"No. It felt too much like a play."
"What, you don't like plays?"

"That's not the point. I bought a ticket to a movie. I felt like I saw a play. If I wanted to see a play, I'd have bought a ticket to a fucking play. You call a thing a movie, it should move. It should go places. This fucking movie, the whole thing takes place inside a pawnshop. It doesn't move. The actors, they just circle around and around each other in this cluttered, God-forsaken little piece-of-shit store. Talking, talking, talking."

"Are they any good?"
"The actors. The guys who talk."

"Well, there's only two of them -- three, if you count the little black kid from Fresh. But it's mainly two guys."

"Which two guys?"
"Which two guys doesn't matter. They happen to be Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz, but that has no bearing on anything. You go to a movie, you expect to see more than just two -- three, if you count the runt -- actors. It's about value. More actors, more value. And Dustin Hoffman -- he's not getting any younger. It's like he's trying to get back to Midnight Cowboy but he doesn't have the energy. You know who starred in the original play? Al fucking Pacino. Now there's an actor."

"Wait. Dustin Hoffman -- you mean Dustin Rain Man, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Graduate, and Tootsie Hoffman?"

"I mean Dustin Outbreak Hoffman. Dustin Hero Hoffman. Dustin Hook Hoffman. And, need I remind you, Dustin Ishtar Hoffman. This is not an actor at his peak. This is not a star at maximum luminescence. This is a guy whose career has seen better days. This is a guy who could use a hit. And I don't think a movie based on a 21-year-old play that doesn't seem nearly as shocking as it did in 1975 is the vehicle with which he will reverse the downward trajectory of his professional arc."

"What about the other guy?"
"Dennis Franz. Two words: Tee Vee. Stars in cop shows with the word blue in the title. Hill Street Blues. NYPD Blue. Not exactly a matinee idol, if you catch my drift. Big lump of a guy. Hoffman's this little weasel and Franz is this big lug. A schlemiel and a galoot. Not much to look at. Not much scenery. A little T & A would have been nice. If two guys have to talk, why couldn't they do it in a sleazy bar? This is 1996. In 1996, two guys want to talk over a job, they do it at a strip joint. Is that too much to ask for my six-fucking-fifty? A little T & A, maybe a couple explosions or a good car chase? Instead I get a couple of actors. Thespians. Fucking method flying everyfuckingwhere. I should have known."

"How could you know?"
"Because, it was by that guy."
"What guy?"
"You know, that guy. That playwright."
"Oh, the playwright. Which one?"

"That guy from Chicago. Says 'Fuck' a lot. Won a Pulitzer fucking Prize. The first playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize for using the word fuck in every sentence. Wrote Glengarry Glen Ross and Sexual Perversity in Chicago, both plays which became movies. Only they changed the name of Sexual Perversity in Chicago to About Last Night.... Now that was a movie. That had humor. That had social relevance. That had Demi Moore, pre-boob job, totally buck fucking naked. None of the coy peekaboo shit she pulls in Striptease. And Rob Lowe, who can't act, who couldn't fetch Dustin Hoffman's fucking coffee. But at least he's a good-looking guy. Not like I lean that way or anything, but you gotta watch two guys for the better part of two hours, it doesn't hurt if one of them looks like Rob Lowe. Even if he can't fucking act."

"So what do these guys talk about?"
"These two guys."

"A job. A robbery. A clandestine exchange of possession. An involuntary divestiture. Accelerated trickle-down microeconomics. One guy's planning a job, the other guy wants a piece of it."

"He wants in? On the other guy's job?"
"Of course he wants in. Everybody wants in. Some people are born in. Some people work their way in. Some people just force their way in. It's the American fucking way."

"What do they steal?"
"They don't steal anything. They just talk about it."
"What do they talk about stealing?"
"Rare coins. Indian head pennies. Morgan silver dollars. Buffalo nickels."

"Pennies and nickels? Two guys talk about pulling a job for pennies and nickels?"

"American buffalo nickels."
"A nickel. Five fucking cents. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that is all an American buffalo is worth."

"Depends. Some people, educated people, nickel connoisseurs, numismatists -- they see an American buffalo nickel, they see a rare thing. A special thing. A valuable thing. A work of art. To them, it's worth more than other nickels. It's worth hundreds, maybe thousands of more common nickels. Other people, they see this funny-looking nickel, they aren't even sure it is a nickel, because it doesn't look like all the other nickels they're used to. It's different, but it doesn't affect them. Could be worthless, could be precious. They'd just as soon have a regular nickel. It's all in how you look at it."

American Buffalo.
Written by David Mamet; directed by Michael Corrente; with Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, and Sean Nelson.

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony