Saturday 23 July 2011

American Buffalo (1996)


David Mamet is a writer who knows a thing or two about the ways of desperate men, primarily because all men are desperate. A primary concern of his is the idea of a man’s struggle to reach the top, to get just one shot at the brass ring. Surely it runs that for every one guy that reaches his goal and makes it all the way, there are dozens who don’t. These are the ones Mamet looks at. Even if they think they’ve given up, got too old to for the fight, or have convinced themselves that they’re happy where they are, it only takes the least little glimmer of light and they will do some pretty messed up stuff to make the grab. Back in 1975, Mamet wrote a play about this very idea, centred around two men, one boy and a coin.

Don (Dennis Franz) runs an inner-city junk shop, and feels rather put out when he discovers he sold a coin for much less than it was worth. He decides to rob the man he sold it to with the help of teenager Bob (Sean Nelson). On finding out about the plan, Don’s friend Teach (Dustin Hoffman) proposes a new plan, where he’s in, Bob’s out and the job becomes about more than just a coin.

It’s pretty hard to poke holes in the script for American Buffalo, which Mamet himself adapted from his own play. Considering that upon its debut, it would win awards for Best New Play, has been revived on Broadway a few times and, in 1983, was called “one of the best American plays of the last decade” by New York Times critic Frank Rich. It’s an absolutely blazing work, full of anger, spite and real tension. Part of what makes it interesting is that it is, effectively, a ‘heist gone wrong’ story, but here the heist goes wrong before it’s even begun. These characters think they know what they’re doing, and to some degree, they actually might. However, whatever skills they may have don’t mesh and they are in constant conflict over every detail of the proposed venture. They trade notions of ‘what if’ as if it were a gunfight, crippling themselves by trying to outthink the other. It’s classic paralysis through analysis. The dialogue is fierce, profane, incendiary… it’s pure David Mamet. Teach is something of a self-anointed gutter philosopher, pontificating viciously on life and the way of the world. “The world is lies. There is no friendship,” says Teach. It’s precisely this kind of bitter cynicism that has held him back all this time, but he genuinely sees no other way it could work. If the world was fair, he’d be better of, but he isn’t. The world has cheated him out of what is his, so parrots this behaviour back to other people. He’s the kind of borderline nutcase who thinks that everyone is just like him and to pretend otherwise is a sure way to get taken. Don is the same, only he’s convinced that he’s stepped back from the fray, watching it all go by from the window of his shop. As he tells his student, Bob “There are people on this street, they want this, they want that, do anything to get it. You don’t have friends this life.” It’s twisted, it’s cruel, it’s mean and he really does mean it.

Considering that there are only three actors ever seen on screen, it is important for them to make their presence felt… and lord, do they work for it. Sean Nelson doesn’t nearly have enough time of screen as the other two, but he keeps his end up very well. Bob clearly wants to please his friend and learn from him, but he’s just not quite able to hold the same level of cynicism as Don and Teach, perhaps because he knows that, young as he is, he still has a shot. Dennis Franz continues his great line in searing looks that served him so well in the interrogation scenes in NYPD Blue. Don is tough, and seems to have let go of unrealistic dreams of the big time, but it’s an act that’s there largely to fool himself. The fire still burns in him, even if it’s just a little bit. All he needs is for the window to open just a little bit and it’ll burn him up all over again. Franz carries this so well. However, as it would be, it’s Hoffman that steals the show. Teach is fierce. He can’t let things go, either because he’s too stubborn or too dumb to recognise when he’s beat. He thinks everyone has an angle or a cheat or a con or some way that gives them the unfair advantage over him. Where Don has let his inner fire cool over the years, Teach is still consumed by his. He’s a man frustrated and Hoffman is a ball of tension and anger. Also, what continues to amaze me about Hoffman is that even though he is this short, unassuming guy, he can still be very intimidating when he wants to be. Just look at the scene where Teach and Don are quizzing Bob, who they think is acting suspiciously. All Hoffman does is sit in his chair and wheel it back and forth, staring at the boy. It’s menacing as hell. Both Franz and Hoffman work really well together, too. They keep great pace with each other, spitting the dialogue back and forth like they’re trading blows. It’s Mamet dialogue as a weapon in the hands of those who know how to use it.

Frankly, if there is one thing that lets down American Buffalo as a film, it’s Michael Corrente’s direction, which lacks any real invention to make it as completely searing as it could be. He certainly understands the high tempers of the piece, the feeling that what you’re watching is two fierce animals stalking around in a cage. At any moment, one of them could blow and someone will get hurt, but Corrente misses out on the capability of the camera. With the camera, you can get right in there with them, close enough to read their faces. However, the camera often keeps at a distance, not really wanting to get involved. Sure, it’s great to see Hoffman and Franz share the screening, sparring, throwing out their test punches, but you can get this from the stage production. Several times, the camera literally hides behind items in the junk shop, so we get a partially obscured vision of what’s going on. Also, there are moments where the framing of the piece would suggest that the two are on the same side, rather than in opposition, which is clearly the real heart of the matter. This is a boxing match, masquerading as a conversation. The performances more than meet this, but the camera does not.

American Buffalo is a superb script that’s acted with force and gusto, but the direction is just too unimaginative and lacklustre to really succeed as a film. The performances do make it absolutely superb watching, so it’s not exactly a wasteful watch. It would just have been better served under the direction of someone possessed of more visual flair.

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