Glengarry Glen Ross
New Line • 1992
What good writers know is that their words can be used in the stead of sharp metallic weapons. A writer who has long shown proficiency in this aspect of the profession is David Mamet, who has used his writing skills for, among other things, stage (Speed The Plow,Oleanna) and screen (House Of Games,The Spanish Prisoner). What Mamet has learned over the years is how to craft the written word to inflict more damage and pain than any physical punishment. To this end, the filmed adaptation (by director James Foley -At Close Range,The Corruptor) of his play “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a crackling good example of how powerful writing can be and how an ‘action-less’ film can seem to be filled with fireworks and explosions.
The danger with films that have been adapted from the stage is dialogue that feels confined to a small set and lack of locales and the grand sweeps that are some of the advantages and hallmarks of cinema. When done right, as in Ross, these pitfalls can be transcended, resulting in a fairly smooth transition from stage to screen. While this film retains the back/forth vocal ping pong match that is Mamet’s trademark, the strength of the actors’ delivery and the fine direction help fit it onto the silver screen with ease.
With a powerhouse lineup of greats including Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Jack Lemmon, Jonathan Pryce, Ed Harris, and Alan Arkin, there is no lack of sterling acting and the energy that these actors produce could light up a small city for a week. Working in a city office that sells land plots anyway they can, this band of hucksters and slick talkers call up leads that they are given by Mitch and Murray at the main office (where Alec Baldwin’s character works). Their mission is then to follow up on these leads and sell those plots.
One of the new leads are the Glengarry properties, and Alec Baldwin, in an extended cameo, tells the salesmen about an innovative contest Mitch and Murray have put together. “We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” And with that, things heat up as the need to succeed presses hard on all involved. Those at the top of their game (like Pacino’s character), need not worry too much, but those struggling with lackluster sales (like the Lemmon character) are very worried. Lemmon (as Shelley Levene) and, to a lesser extent, Arkin’s character have got a lot to worry about.
Kevin Spacey plays John Williamson, the office manager, with the same dry, droll style that makes him … Kevin Spacey. It’s his job to keep things in check and make sure people are meeting their goals. Levene and Williamson have a little verbal spat where the usually mild mannered Levene yells at Williamson, “What the hell are you? You’re a fuckin’ secretary! Fuck You! That’s my message to ya. Fuck you and you can kiss my ass and if you don’t like it baby I’m going across the street to Jerry Graff, period. Fuck You!” (Graff being the competition that some are thinking of jumping ship to.) And when the safe in the office is broken into and prime leads are stolen, things really start to fall apart, with no turning back.
While, hopefully, none of us have to work in this sort of environment, it has echoes of the fears and experiences that many go through at work. The competition, the backstabbing, the uncertainty of job security and the misery of personal failure. It’s all here and it’s all good.
The Big Kahuna
Lion’s Gate Films • 2000
A companion piece that calms it down a few notches is this year’s The Big Kahuna, also starring Kevin Spacey. Written by Roger Rueff (based on his play), it fails to reach the adaptory (if you let me butcher our language) success of Glengarry, but it holds its own as an unusual piece that, if anything, gives us a chance to see Danny DeVito in one of his best performances (if you don’t count his pseudo-necrophiliac, “Hawaii 5-0”-loving idiot in this year’s Screwed, and I don’t). Rounding out the trifecta cast is Peter Facinelli (Can’t Hardly Wait and the superbad Supernova) as the new salesman for an industrial lubricant company. Spacey, DeVito and Facinelli are basically held up in a Kansas City hotel suite waiting to woo potential customers, including the biggest possible account who is the ‘big kahuna.’
The brunt of what happens is a slow deconstruction of the working life, specifically the lonely, left-out-there-to-dry, field of selling. Spacey plays Spacey … again (not that I mind), with the bitter edge of a man who has been through the ringer many times and has seen everything in this business. DeVito has turned introspective about his life and where (if anywhere) it is leading. Facinelli is new to the whole game and Spacey is giving him a crash course on the finer aspects of closing a sale (though Facinelli’s methods greatly differ from Spacey’s.)
It is a minimalistic success that works for the most part but still leaves you wanting something more to happen. While the box art would lead you to believe that it is a wild and wacky party, the viewer is soon enveloped in its claustrophobic reality. With that caveat, it still stands on its own as a good Wednesday night film that won’t keep you up afterwards thinking too much or having any nightmares — unless you are an unsuccessful industrial lubricant salesman; then you are on your own.