Is the opposite of offhand, onhand? If so, The Spanish Prisoner is the most onhand movie since Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Writer-director David Mamet delights in his own supposed cleverness; he wants you to scratch your head while he manipulates your brain. Campbell Scott plays a researcher in some unspecified field who invents an unspecified yet fabulously valuable new "process." He's certain to be victimized by someone--if not his niggardly boss (Ben Gazzara), then a mysterious, ultrarich new friend (Steve Martin). Mamet's debut as a feature writer-director, House of Games (1987), was a serviceable sting film named for a seedy city gambling joint. The Spanish Prisoner, which is set in the Caribbean, New York, and Boston, might as well take place in the Penthouse of Games.
This laboriously labyrinthine immorality play has gained Mamet his best (film) reviews to date partly because it's so upscale--and so compatible with reports of soaring stock prices. It's about a yuppie who doesn't want to see his chance to enter the world of the superrich disappear while his employers decide how much they owe him for a formula he cooked up while on salary. When Scott fails to get his company's assurances that he'll be duly compensated for his work, he falls for the advice of the dapper Martin, who knows how corporations exploit nice guys and resent them for their good nature.
In a dull, plodding way, the film works on the audience's identification with Scott as a kind of white-collar Joe Six-Pack--Charlie Chardonnay. Even his weird, denatured vocabulary has the sound of a language developed in library stacks and office cubicles. When he's trying to buck a gal up, he tells her that she's "loyal and true and not too hard to look at." Unfortunately, most of the characters speak with the same sham abstraction and judiciousness. "Thus are men made equal," quips Martin, after he opens a Swiss bank account for Scott. Scott's avuncular company-lawyer friend (Ricky Jay) spits out secondhand epigrammatic mouthfuls on the order of "Worry is the interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due."
The language has none of the vulgarity of a lowdown Mamet opus like American Buffalo or Glengarry Glen Ross, and none of the energy or invention either. (Or the originality: When all else fails, Mamet quotes the classics, like Thoreau's "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.") Mamet did a wonderfully fluid English version of Uncle Vanya, but the dialogue in The Spanish Prisoner sounds as if he translated some 19th-century melodrama from English into Russian and then back again. How else do you explain the secretary with a crush on Scott--who's supposed to be a dumb brunette--saying, fancifully, "My troika was pursued by wolves"? Moments later, she asks, "When you own the company, can I be queen?"
With all due respect to his delightful scenario for Wag the Dog, if Mamet is the new Hitchcock, I'm the king of Albania. Hitchcock's gamesmanship had a zest and glee that released the sexuality of his actors. Mamet's oddly earnest ingenuity reduces Scott, Martin, and Gazzara to a trio of empty suits (though the sexiest thing in the movie is the way Martin wears clothes). The unluckiest performer is Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's real-life wife); she's stuck in the jarringly off-key role of the love-struck secretary. With an obviousness worthy of future Ph.D. theses on "Appearance and Reality in David Mamet," her character remarks to Scott, "You never know who anybody is." (Martin later tells him, "Good people, bad people, generally look like what they are.") Pidgeon's character is such a gee-willikers gal that she might have stepped in from Fargo. She's 100 percent inauthentic, whether she's falling for Scott or just playing him for a pigeon.
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The Spanish Prisoner.
Directed and written by David Mamet. Starring Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, and Ricky Jay. Opens Friday.