You all know my opinion on movies by now; that is, can there be such a thing as a movie which is too intelligent? Nope. But it can try way too hard to seem intelligent. That’s the case with The Spanish Prisoner. Written and directed by David Mamet, The Spanish Prisoner has many of the hallmarks of great films: intelligent plot, fascinating twists and turns, smart dialog, and an interesting atmosphere or mood. I like this film a lot, but I can’t call it a great film because Mamet tries too hard to prove he’s clever—which we already knew.
Mamet is probably one of the most prolific and famed playwrights of our time. However, I recently read in the Guardian that Mamet’s last 6 plays have been serious box office flops—one was even announced closed after the first day it opened having only 17 professional performances. Read the article here http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2013/jun/12/david-mamet-lost-the-plot. I think the problem is, and I’ve said this before in our review of Gengarry Glenross, that Mamet has one underlying theme and most of his work is a variation on that theme. Simply put, that people are selfish jerks and would step over their own mother for a dollar. The Spanish Prisoner is no exception only it is much more complicated and elaborate than his big three “Oleanna” “American Buffalo” and of course “Glengarry Glenross.”
Campbell Scott (son of George C. Scott) and also a graduate of my alma-mater (where he was a visiting professor when I attended university) is the victim of a truly intricate con known as the Spanish Prisoner. “The Spanish Prisoner” is a con game that dates back to the 19th century. Typically, the con man informs a victim of a wealthy man held prisoner in Spain. The con man then convinces the victim to put up funds to rescue the wealthy man in exchange for a larger sum of money once the prisoner is released, as well as obtaining the hand of a young, beautiful woman, typically the wealthy man’s daughter. The con game ends once the victim has been cleaned or realizes that he has been duped from the beginning.
Steve Martin plays Jimmy Dell. Now, in truth, Martin is brilliant. Prior to this film, I viewed him as a an actor who could only play the “put-upon guy.” Yet here he plays a suave and brilliant businessman, and he does it incredibly well. In The Spanish Prisoner, Martin takes over the screen with his performance.
The title is a direct reference to the specific con game, an updated version of which Joseph A. ‘Joe’ Ross (Campbell Scott) suddenly finds himself caught in. A small clog in the machinery of a large firm, he invents an unnamed and un-shown “Process” which is guaranteed to make untold masses of money for the company he works for. On a business trip to the Caribbean, he meets millionaire Julian ‘Jimmy’ Dell (Steve Martin) and is befriended by an even lowlier coworker, the secretary Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), who obviously has a thing for him. Back home, he slowly begins to feel that his boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) is out to screw him, but before he can protect his interests, he not only finds out that it is actually Jimmy who is out to screw him but actually gets the screw job. A twist and a turn and a twist and a turn and a double and triple twist and turn later, Ross is not only bereft of The Process but is also seemingly framed for the murder of his buddy George Lang (Ricky Jay). Everything everywhere points to Ross, while Jimmy is nowhere to be found. With the help of Susan, he sets out to prove his innocence, but the film still has a good dozen twists to go before the last line of smart dialogue is crisply delivered. In the end it turns out not only was it his employer who was behind the scheme but that the U.S. Marshalls (disguised as Japanese tourists) were watching the whole time thereby wrapping up this incredibly complex artifice in a few minutes.
The truly horrible thing about this film is Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pigeon, who plays a mere secretary at Joe’s firm. Apparently she has had a role in every one of Mamet’s plays since their marriage in 1991. That is not a good thing. Listening to her in this film is like nails scratching on a chalkboard. She tries to come off as the quirky cute temptress but instead bogs down the film with her annoying dialog, speech patterns and voice inflections. I mean it is hard to put up with. Putting that to one side, it’s a tricky plot, and Mamet never lets his audience forget just how tricky it is, just as he never lets anyone forget that he’s a writer, or maybe preferably a Writer. And boy can he write. One gets the sense, listening to his dialogue, which he just loves to write, that he loves the sound of his own words that he loves the wordplay and clever twisting of familiar quotes and clichés to new purposes. One does not get the sense that he has ever actually heard the way real people talk, or that he has any feel for (or interest in) writing in such a way that actors can actually deliver his lines without coming across as stilted and inhuman. Maybe he doesn’t care, maybe he’s quite content creating this stylized Mamet world where these humanoid figures sort of look and sometimes act like people, but speak as though they learned about human interactions by studying high school productions of Shakespeare. There’s stylized dialogue that works (His Girl Friday, still the model for artificial but infectious patter), and then there’s stylized dialogue that merely calls attention to its own stylization without compensating for it by being, you know, clever or fun or intelligent. Maybe you can guess which category this falls into: “Money, it depresses everyone but what did it ever do for one?”
Let me stress that you should not read this review as a condemnation. I like this film and I recommend it. But I feel the film artificially limits my ability to love it because of these entirely avoidable flaws. Had Mamet stopped telling me how intelligent he is (which we already knew), then this could have been a great movie. As it is, it’s a good movie which wasted its potential to become a great movie.
We interrupt this Musashi series to bring you SS’s maiden review: Keeping up with the Joneses
The Joneses focuses on a foursome whose job is to pose as a family in wealthy suburbia in order to sell, to their neighbors, their picture-perfect luxury lifestyle and the accoutrements it requires. This phony stealth “marketing unit” is led by veteran mom Kate (Demi Moore) and includes rookie dad Steve (David Duchovny), slutty daughter Jenn (Amber Heard), and milquetoast son Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), all of them employed by KC (Lauren Hutton) to push high-end products to the various demographic groups in which they mingle. They can’t tell anyone what they’re doing, of course. That would defeat the purpose. Instead, they must cultivate “friendships” with the people they’re subtly advertising to. They’re salespeople whose goal is to market themselves, and director Derrick Borte promotes this fantasy with enough electronics-and-dishware fetishism to slyly indict his audience’s own materialist hunger.
In their new ritzy enclave, the Joneses wow the locals and befriend a couple, Larry Symonds (Gary Cole of Office Space) and Summer (Glenne Headly), who desperately need to keep up with their new neighbors and become integral components of their community. Summer is a salesperson, too, the old-school kind who hosts parties to sell a line of beauty products. She’s not very good at it, but she’s so focused on it that she has no time for Larry, who adores her. Larry, following Steve’s lead — Steve and Kate seem so happy! — buys baubles for his wife. But take a closer look at the situation and you’ll start to see something ominous lurking just beneath the surface. It’s only when the Joneses are confronted with the unexpected suicide of Larry that they finally discover who they really are beneath the glossy veneer of consumerism.
Yet lonely and unhappy in their downtime, the false family is so obviously and tamely positioned as embodiments of American consumerism-run-amok and the sham joy derived from purchased things that the film quickly telegraphs the sermon to come. Come it does, via the type of predictable tragedy one can see a country club away, though not before Steve subtly convinces men to buy fancy golf gear, Kate covertly hawks frozen dinners and beauty care products, Jenn and Mick advertise perfume and videogames to the local teens, and an equally foreseeable subplot plays out involving Steve’s desire for a real nuclear family and Kate’s developing feelings for her fake hubby.
As a modern satire of the nouveau riche, The Joneses offers a reflective look at the status seeking upper middle class: their shallow pursuit of the latest gadgets, designer clothes and other goods and shows that although on the surface they may seem successful, they are no better off than the middle or lower class. They are living hand to mouth on a different scale. The only difference is the number zero on the bills going out every month. They fall prey to the same flaws of vanity narcissism and they have the same insecurities about who they are in life, like their neighbor who had all the trappings of wealth on the surface but in the end the self-destruction drove him to suicide. They are all trying to display their lack of real wealth but expensive cars and clothes. When it comes down to it, your real wealth is not what is in your bank account. Feeling wealthy is the cause of your demise, because no matter what you buy, the bill is in the mail and at some point it will come home to roost. Trying to keep up with the Joneses, you can charge $30,000 worth of clothes, but you will still never keep up with them. It says something about society: we have these multinational companies telling us “we designed jeans which cost $200 per pair” even though a pair of Levis cost $50 and the $200 pair does not use four times as much denim. They create an illusion and when the consumer buys it becomes real. It is all about status — you can get as much status as your wallet can afford or at least fake it and hope you make it.
Posted by JPFmovies on April 17, 2011 in Movie Reviews
Tags: advertising, Amber Heard, American life, beauty products, Ben Hollingsworth, commentary, consumerism, David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Glengarry Glen Ross, golf, lauren hutton, marketing, narcissism, nouveau riche, real wealth, sales, self-destruction, SS, suicide, The Joneses, vanity