Wooden nickel

American Buffalo, with Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz parrying with playwright David Mamet's razor-sharp dialogue, promised to be the sleeper tour de force of the season. The opportunity to see Mamet's sharply honed lines bandied about by actors with an innate understanding of the rhythm of words should have been a salutary event.

After all, during the past 20 years Mamet has carved a niche in the theater world with works so vivid that his style is instantly identifiable as his alone. He was exploring the parameters of dramatic dialogue as a conduit for tension and character development when Quentin Tarantino still thought Archie comics were pretty neat. Even the mere mention of Mamet's name evokes thoughts of his trademark rat-a-tat verbal gunplay, full of halting conversations and hairpin-curve mood shifts. Mamet's technique is abrupt and rude and opaque. His characters, mostly men, are almost always on the make one way or another: hustlers continually angling for the big score that never materializes, opportunists who seldom say what they mean but will do just about anything for the right price.

Despite some surface similarities, Mamet's plays--among them Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, and Oleanna--never become shopworn or repetitive. Probably that's due to his intense interest in the myriad ways people relate--not just to one another, but to certain universal ideas: wealth, sex, power. There's an unspoken hierarchy in the social strata of his con artists, and while the structure is unfamiliar to the point of being surreal, there's never any doubt in your mind that he's captured it perfectly. Mamet wallows in the seaminess of the American dream he portrays, preaching his cynical message about the vulgar inevitability of a free-market economy peopled by unscrupulous losers for whom scheming is not just a way of life, it's an ethos. And the play that got him started on this course is American Buffalo.

With all this in mind, how could the film version be anything short of deliciously wicked? Hoffman and Franz seem ideally cast; Mamet scripted the movie himself (his screenplays for The Verdict and House of Games made for two of the best-written films of the '80s); the studio has given the film the kind of low-key campaign reserved for "prestige" pictures...Why, you can practically smell the Oscars. How could they go wrong? Yet that is exactly what the filmmakers have done: mounted a boring, lifeless movie whose body decomposes scene by scene, line after claustrophic line.

Granted, American Buffalo is a small, character-driven drama with a skeletal plot even by Mamet's standards. Two margin-dwelling cretins--junk store owner Donny (Franz) and seedy grifter "Teacher" (Hoffman)--plot a heist of valuable coins. Their mark might as well have begged to be robbed: He had the gall to come into Donny's shop and offer him $90 for a buffalo-head nickel that should have been worth a little more than a dollar. Donny can spot a scam when he sees one, and so he decides to burglarize the mark's house, take the coins, and if irony will permit it, sell them back to him later. The second-act tension comes when a third member of the team, Fletch, fails to show up for the rendezvous, leaving Donny and Teacher to occupy themselves by fantasizing about why he hasn't shown up and whether that means they've been double-crossed.

The deficiencies in the movie don't spring particularly from its small-time themes and meandering plot, although that's been true of several movies based on Mamet scripts: Things Change, House of Games, and Glengarry Glen Ross. What sets American Buffalo apart from these films is that the director, Michael Corrente, has made it so fatally stagebound that it is practically unwatchable as a movie. Despite their similarities, film and theater are different media entirely: Theater is an art form of ideas and conflict, while cinema gathers its resonance from the confluence of the visual with the emotional. We react differently to plays and movies, just like we do to books and songs. Playwright John Guare once observed that in the movies, no one's impressed by special-effect spaceships that travel at the speed of light anymore; but actually fry an egg on stage, and you'll have audiences talking for hours. Mamet himself has voiced the opinion that the ideal screenplay would be completely free of dialogue.

Of course, you can't adapt a Mamet play and take out all the lines. His plays are about conversation, and the music of words--or, more accurately, the cacophony of words as they sound forth bile and anguish and fear and self-loathing. Mamet's creations are always riffing on politics and sex, but the substance of his works comes from their deceptive formlessness. When he fills his characters with bluster and braggadocio, he's not just giving them peculiar character traits--he's shining a flashlight into the corners of their minds and letting us observe as the cockroaches scatter. In American Buffalo, for example, Teacher is the antagonist, even though he fancies himself the victim. That's the way Mamet works: The pettiness of his characters betrays them every time.

Still, there's no reason dialogue can't be cinematic. Last year, the film Smoke showed how the simple act of puffing on a cigar and telling a story can help us escape from our lives by getting us caught up in the moment of interacting with other people. Reservoir Dogs doesn't utilize much more in terms of plot, cast, and setting than American Buffalo, but its visual energy is constantly captivating. Corrente's mistake is that he overlooks the visual potential in his story and doesn't make even the most half-hearted attempt at adapting American Buffalo to the screen. His failure occurred during the phase of conception. It's not that there's a bad performance, or poor pacing, or an intrusive musical score; it's that Corrente doesn't edit the movie, he blocks it. He employs no cinematic motifs, and seems never to have heard of using sound, closeups, and montage to create a sense of drama. He expends all his effort in maneuvering his actors around the set; characters enter and exit as if handed their cues by the stage manager. Corrente's approach is so unsophisticated that we're constantly aware that we're watching a bad movie, and Mamet's greatest asset--his ability to create a kind of realism--is squandered.

The saddest thing about American Buffalo is that by transposing the play to film so ineptly, Corrente has done a disservice to the work as a whole--he's ruined it as both a play and as a movie. Sometimes combining two good things doesn't produce something better, but worse. It's like those polyester neckties with the Mona Lisa on them. Some people like them, but personally, I tend to think of them as an easy way to insult both art and fashion at the same time.

American Buffalo. Samuel Goldwyn. Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, Sean Nelson. Written by David Mamet, from his play. Directed by Michael Corrente. Now showing.

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