Glengarry Glen Ross
Director: James Foley. Cast: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce, Alec Baldwin. Screenplay: David Mamet (based on his play).

When a play is as popular and respected as David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, a film adaptation is probably inevitable. Unfortunately, director James Foley rushed ahead with this version before anyone involved had any ideas about how to take Glengarry out of its theatrical origins and make of it compelling cinema. Instead, he places all his bets on a top-notch cast, who all rise to the occasion with characterisically strong performances.

One of the stand-outs in this formidable lineup is Oscar-nominated Al Pacino as the flamboyant Ricky Roma, the biggest breadwinner in the sham real-estate office supervised by milquetoast John Williamson (Kevin Spacey, who for once doesn't kill a single person). Released during the same year as his unbridled scenery-chewing in Scent of a Woman, this film features Pacino taking a restrained approach to a showboating character, rather than a showboating approach to a blind, alcoholic ex-soldier who could have used a little toning down. The other notable performance is Ed Harris' as Dave Moss, a less profitable, more panicked salesman so fed up with the head company's ultimatum tactics that he devises a criminal solution to the problem.

However strong the performances, of course, the central figure of this play is still David Mamet, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his typically backflipping sentences and staccato repetitions, though in Glengarry Glen Ross they are even more profane than usual. "Anybody who talks to that asshole is a fuckin' asshole," Moss protests after Alec Baldwin, as an external supervisor, shows up to the office to lambast the salesmen's flagging figures.

For all of these advantages, Glengarry Glen Ross is as hopelessly stagebound as any theatrical adaptation I've ever seen. At one point, Pacino's Ricky is putting his huckster moves on a credulous man in a restaurant booth, played by Jonathan Pryce. Meanwhile, Harris and Alan Arkin are conspiring at the bar of the same restaurant, but Foley and cameraman Juan Ruiz-Anchia keep so narrowly focused on one or the other conversation as they cut back and forth that we get no sense of how big the restaurant is, or how far away from Pacino is sitting from Harris and Arkin's perch on their stools.

Nor does the picture, through editing or camerawork, frequently bother to tell us how characters arrive at different locations. In the two opening sequences, Harris and Jack Lemmon speak on side-by-side pay phones, then visit a men's room where they engage each other in a strained, bitter conversation. By the film's end, I still have no idea where the pay phones were, or the restroom, how far one was from the other, or any other clue as to the spatial layout of these scene locations. There is no reason for a drama this gritty and urban—so driven by mundane, practical realities—to play out in such abstract spaces. Combine such a lack of specificity with entire sequences in which nearly every frame is the same medium shot, and you have one cinematically uninteresting picture.

Adaptations like Glengarry Glen Ross are perfect counter-evidence to anyone asserting that movies are merely about dialogue and plot. Mamet's tale of pervasive corruption, of bare-bones desperation and the unlikely ripple-effects of the tiniest transgressions itself remains as powerful a tract as it must be on stage. As communicated through uninspired visuals, though, and without the immediacy of a live-theater experience, Glengarry Glen Ross becomes what a viewer of the play could hardly imagine: a bore.

What a missed opportunity. Put another way, what a swindle. Grade: B–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Al Pacino

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Al Pacino

Other Awards:
Venice Film Festival: Best Actor (Lemmon)
National Board of Review: Best Actor (Lemmon)

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