Saturday, June 15, 2013

Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross
Director: James Foley
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce

Oh, David Mamet.  Mamet brings to mind certain things for me.  Words, and lots of them.  But certain words, repeated over and over again, not for their meaning but because of how they sound.  Mamet is all about rhythm and sounds, rolling the words around in your mouth before speaking them, relishing how the syllables are formed.  Plot is not the point (well, not as much as usual).  Hell, characters aren’t even the point.  It’s about the words.

Four men who sell shitty real estate to chump buyers out of a New York office are told by management (Spacey and Alec Baldwin in a cameo) that they are now entered into a competition for their jobs: the winner gets a car, the loser gets fired.  Shelley Levene (Lemmon) is growing increasingly desperate; it’s been too long since he’s had a hot streak.  Moss (Harris) utterly resents the contest for their livelihoods, and rants to Aaronow (Arkin).  Roma (Pacino) is on a hot streak, though, so he’s sitting pretty… until their office gets robbed and the leads, the good leads, the Glengarry leads, are missing.

Does Glengarry Glen Ross have the most talented cast of all time?  Yes.  OK, it’s probably impossible to identify something like that, but Glengarry Glen Ross is definitely top five.  Lemmon, Pacino, Spacey, Harris, Arkin, Pryce, Baldwin – holy fuck.  To me, this, combined with Mamet’s dialogue, are the big two reasons to watch this movie.  These are actors who are not only talented, but on the top of their game.  No one phones in a performance in Glengarry Glen Ross, even in the supporting roles.  Each one is phenomenal, managing to create a fully rounded character, pushed to their limits.  No one is in a rut, no one is complacent, everyone is fully keyed in and committed.  Lemmon is so good, so sad sack, so desperate, so at the end of his rope.  Pacino does an amazing job of playing what is clearly a Mamet-created character, so careful in how he speaks, so syncopated in his conversation.  Spacey as the boss is fantastic as he walks the line between weak-spined corporate puppet and genuinely dark and bitter character.  With Spacey, you never wholly know where the character stands in the film, but that’s a good thing because he is then unpredictable.  When he coldly turns a character away, it’s shocking in its cruelty, because he never hinted at it before. 

Really, the cast here is an embarrassment of riches.  Jesus, what a cast.

The dialogue, oh the dialogue.  There are certainly moments of what I would call “normal” dialogue, but also plenty of those utterly unique Mamet exchanges.  My favorite, and perhaps most distinct snippets, were those between Aaronow and Moss as Moss complains over and over and Aaronow agrees somewhat sycophantically.  The repetition sounds like a rat-a-tat-tat, like the rain on the roof of the car.  I love the stuttering in Mamet dialogue because it’s wholly on purpose.  It reminds me of a percussion drum line, every word in its exact right place, every syllable on purpose, every pause intentional, combining to make some novel melody that doesn’t sound quite like the symphony, but is intriguing nonetheless.  The actors and how they speak these lines, that is why you should watch Glengarry Glen Ross.

I like the noir atmosphere of the film.  It’s almost constantly raining in the first half of the film when the central conceit is introduced.  It’s nighttime, and we saw lots of sinister crimson reds and depressing blues.  The second half of the film looks significantly less noir, with a lighter day casting sunlight into the office.  It’s an interesting change, perhaps following Shelley Levine’s character arc.  In the first night, when Shelley is incredibly desperate and can’t catch a break, everything looks dark and bleak.  But the next morning, after the robbery, Shelley has made a sale he is excited about, and everything lightens up. 

Ultimately, while I really enjoy what I mentioned above, the entire premise of Glengarry Glen Ross keeps me at arm’s length from loving the film.  I abhor that sense of cutthroat competition that Glengarry Glen Ross is all about.  When I was in high school, as a clarinetist, I tasted of that competition.  The world of classical music is ferocious in its ridiculously high standards, and I knew it.  I knew that I had to be the best in order to have any chance at all of making it, and I also knew that although I was good, I was hardly the best (one of the best in my state, perhaps, but not the best overall).  And I reached a decision about why I was playing the clarinet – because I loved it, not because I wanted to compete.  So I knew I would not make it my career, I never wanted to make it my career, I did not want that tyrannical competition in my life.  Conversely, one of the things I love so much about where I work, where I teach, is that the teachers I work with are so utterly uncompetitive.  We share, we collaborate, we openly help one another out.  There is no sense of hoarding; if I come up with a new idea for an activity, I consult my colleagues for help because I know with them, the idea will be even better.  I hate – HATE – the premise of Glengarry Glen Ross.  It makes my stomach turn.  It’s actively something I avoid in my life.  It pits person against person, friend against friend, tearing people down and pulling apart relationships.  No thank you.  I feel so uncomfortable watching this film that I just can’t enjoy it.  It’s too hard.  It’s TOO bitter.  It makes me so ridiculously uncomfortable.  I’m sure others don’t have this type of problem with the film, but it’s a bit of a deal-breaker for me.

Glengarry Glen Ross is definitely unique in its talented cast, pattering dialogue, and over the top bitter premise.  Frankly, though, the premise is too bitter for me to swallow easily.  It’s a very good film, absolutely, but it can’t sit too well with me.  It’s one of those rough things where I know this is a good movie, I just have no interest in ever watching it again.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10


  1. I understand where you're coming from with being turned off by the subject matter here. Fortunately, the dialogue is just so damn good that I can look past that, and I've enjoyed this film many times, and look forward to doing so again. Even though pretty much all the scenes are just 2 or more guys sat in a small space talking, there are so many different and great ones here. I know they're the most quoted, but it's Baldwin's scene and the one where Pacino berates Spacey that just keep drawing me back. Not only is the script a marvel, but all those actors know exactly what to do with it.

    1. Oh yeah, I mean, the dialogue is just crackling. And the performances are great. And the characters are just fantastic. I really think this is a very very good film. I just... wish the hyper competitive environment didn't make my stomach turn.

      It's one of those instances where I can see how good this is, but I also know I can't watch it more than once or twice.