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‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 02, 1992

David Mamet makes steak tartare of the male ego in "Glengarry Glen Ross," a volatile and, of course, voluble adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play about shysters who sell swampland to pensioners. A pack of driven curs in the go-go '80s, they have become whining jackals in the no-no '90s, snarling miserably over the dwindling supply of gullible prospects. Mamet doesn't like them, but they're his kind of guys, a bunch of crumbums whose posturing makes perfect fuel for the profane ping-pong of his dialogue. Quirky camera angles and murky lighting aside, the words are the thing.

Despite a slight filmography that includes the Madonna movie "Who's That Girl," director James Foley is as adept at managing this intensely psychodramatic material as he is handling an ensemble cast with the combined power of a runaway locomotive. Though the work is caustic even when it's comic, Mamet has tempered the tone somewhat for movie audiences. And he's won some sympathy for these fast-talking bottom-feeders by pitting them against a sleekly abusive management consultant (Alec Baldwin) expressly created for the movie.

After cutting them off at the waist, the Baldwin character rubs salt in their wounds. Management -- Mitch and Murray downtown -- is sponsoring a sales contest, he says, stopping to readjust his Rolex. "First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives." And if they don't win either of those, maybe they'll want to borrow a knife and commit serrated hara-kiri because "Third prize: You're fired."

Nobody takes the news well, but Shelley "The Machine" Levene (Jack Lemmon) turns fish-belly pale. Once the office's top salesman, Levene is now a worn-out 59-year-old with a daughter in the hospital and $30 left to pay the bills. In quivering desperation, he offers to share his commissions with the office manager (Kevin Spacey) if he'll let him have the coveted "Glen Ross leads" -- lists of hot prospects reserved for top salesmen.

In the meantime, Dave Moss (Ed Harris) has been so outraged by this latest assault on his manhood that he has decided to get even with Mitch and Murray by stealing the leads and selling them to the competition. When he isn't blaming his troubles on bum tips or grousing about the late hours, Moss is bantering with George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), a beaten man who, like Levene, has failed to keep up with the times and the new rules of the game.

The company's current ace, Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), doesn't even bother to attend the meeting. Instead he spends the time wooing a potential client (Jonathan Pryce) he latches onto in a bar. A mouse who's seduced by Roma's nonsensical new age spiel, the client is convinced that's he's doing something audacious, almost kinky, when he agrees to purchase a piece of Florida's Glengarry Highlands. When he tries to back out of the contract the next morning, Levene helps Roma, who was once his protege, reset the hook. Levene's own self-confidence is then fleetingly restored when he too closes a deal, but he is soon back in Mamet's Cuisinart.

All the performances are exceptional. Lemmon's role is the most precarious, doubtless tempting the old tiger to excess. But this time he resists, successfully clamoring through a wide range of emotions from the visceral high of the close to the despondency of realizing his own ruin. Pacino is likable in his arrogance -- no hero, but he could sell rump roast to a vegetarian. It's a wonderfully economical performance. Harris and Arkin are Mamet's Two Stooges, playing their scenes together like verbal slapstick.

Whether it's acting or real estate, the sale is the thing. And "Glengarry Glen Ross" is a hard sell, a wrenchingly claustrophobic tale about screwing up and getting screwed. Not so poignant as "Death of a Salesman," to which it's often compared, the drama really has more in common with Barry Levinson's "Tin Men." Only Levinson redeems his salesmen, while Mamet consigns his to real estate Hell, where the Devil gives the best leads to the guys from Century 21.

"Glengarry Glen Ross" is rated R for profanity.

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