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Cons Outshine the Prose
In Mamet's 'Spanish Prisoner'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 1998

  Movie Critic

The Spanish Prisoner Campbell Scott and Steve Martin star in "The Spanish Prisoner." (Sony Classics)

David Mamet
Campbell Scott;
Rebecca Pidgeon;
Steve Martin;
Ben Gazzara;
Ricky Jay;
Felicity Huffman
Running Time:
1 hour, 52 minutes
For its intensity and gore
The problem with playwright-screenwriter-director David Mamet is that he insists on being David Mamet. If you like David Mamet, you will be in pig heaven during the first half hour of "The Spanish Prisoner." I think it goes something like this:


"Yes, me."

"But I – "

"But nothing. Me."

"Oh. You."

A lot of this goes a very little way, until in your mind a private Mamet drama is unspooling.

Out of here?

Yes, out of here!

Here? Out of – now?

Yes. Now. Now out. Out of here!

My parodies are lame, of course. Still that incantational rhythm of short, jagged lines pitched against each other is both mesmerizing and deeply annoying. It's as mannered as computer language, which it resembles, artificial to the point of being plastic, as performed by a cast that so believes in the truth underneath its opacity that it fills the work with a psychotically intense singsonginess that lingers in your ears – in my case, it even drowns out those damned bells! – for days.

Fortunately, about 40 minutes or so into "The Spanish Prisoner," which Mamet both wrote and directed, he gets into his materials and out of his infernal style and the movie seems to take off. It becomes a gripping thing: It's no longer an artifice, composed of brilliant if precious shards of language. It's a story.

Campbell Scott, the perfect Mamet hero for his utter blankness locked behind the illusion of competence, plays a young scientist named, blankly enough, Joe Ross, who has invented "the process." Mamet is too coy to tell us what this is or too lazy to imagine it; it's just "a process" that will up "the company's" share of "the market" by an undisclosed but obviously obscene sum. The stench of big bucks is everywhere, and everybody wants to get their snouts into the trough.

Ross, mixing with the bigwigs down at the company retreat in the Caribbean, is both star and victim. He knows he deserves more than a pat on the back, which is all big boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) seems willing to give, so he is vaguely disgruntled. At the same time he becomes involved with a sporty millionaire of insufferable glibness named Jimmy Dell, played by Steve Martin at his smarmiest. A minor but persistent irritant is the bright-eyed "new girl," Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), a secretary who is so oppressively chipper she'll make your veins pop.

As it turns out, there's no Spain and no prisoner anywhere in sight; "Spanish prisoner" is the name of an ancient confidence game in which the naive are gulled by the self-confident into parting with their treasures with alarming ease. I leave the details to Mamet, but the movie's surface of bright, brittle patter, initially off-putting, comes finally to serve as camouflage for the sinister movement of large and powerful forces.

We know, far before Ross does, that the game is being played, so part of the pleasure is of the coldest sort: It's watching the tethered goat bleat until the tiger arrives. And he's a very stupid goat: In fact, Joe's stupidity is the incredible aspect of the story, but an absolutely necessary one. Without it, there's no story, just someone saying no to a stupid favor at the very beginning of what will be a long, clever campaign.

And the plot, though simple in concept, is intensely intricate in operation; the invasion of Normandy wasn't this complicated. But it also reminds me of a little riff in an Anne Tyler novel in which her character admits befuddlement at movies about elaborate plans that turn on someone looking over here when they could just as easily be looking over there. In Tyler's books, of course, it doesn't matter where people look, because the issue is just making it through till bedtime. In all thrillers, and particularly Mamet's beloved games of deception, the plots are predicated on the illusion that human behavior can be so intricately known that it can be confidently predicted. That's what is both unreal and fascinating about them.

"The Spanish Prisoner" ends as abruptly as it began slowly. Its rhythms, therefore, feel violated; it just stops, rather too conveniently, with the intrusion of still another level of conspiratorial force far beyond what has gone before. This may be part of Mamet's purpose, one of those higher experiments in dramatic form that cure the disease but kill the patient. I felt somewhat bedazzled to be exiled back into a real world where the conspiracies are so much more banal. And there's a deeper suspicion as well: That one has been mesmerized by cleverness rather than depth.

Ethics precludes offering more details. But I will give you a hint: Watch the Japanese tourists.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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