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'Prisoner' in Disguise

By Michael O'Sullivan
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)

Director:
David Mamet
Cast:
Campbell Scott;
Rebecca Pidgeon;
Steve Martin;
Ben Gazzara;
Ricky Jay;
Felicity Huffman
Running Time:
1 hour, 52 minutes
PG
For vague allusions to sex and a shot of a bloody knife wound
Pure David Mamet is an acquired, but delicious, taste.

As a screenwriter, Mamet's words have been set to celluloid by a variety of directors, both popular and esoteric: Barry Levinson ("Wag the Dog"), Lee Tamahori ("The Edge") and Louis Malle ("Vanya on 42nd Street"), to name a few. Still, there is often something of Mamet's muscular and musical rhythms that is lost or muted when others filter the Obie- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's material through their lenses.

That's why Mamet directed by Mamet-as in his latest "The Spanish Prisoner"-is a bold, unwatered-down and idiosyncratic dish. Of course, that quintessential Mamet vernacular is here-the artificial way his people have of speaking that is simultaneously oblique and precise. And his favorite character types-the con man and the conned-abound. But there is something cool and methodical about Mamet's eye that accentuates, rather than minimizes the oddness of his fictional world and its inhabitants. Real folks, you might think to yourself, don't talk (or act) this way, except in Mamet's robust and consistent directorial vision, you start to believe that they do.

"Look. Hey, look. Here's the thing . . ." begins one of Mamet's characters in typically iterative Mametspeak.

The thing is this: Campbell Scott plays a hard-working, ordinary Joe. (Joe Ross, in fact, is his humdrum name.) He's a loyal employee of an unspecified company, for whom he has just invented a mysterious, proprietary "process." Subject to the approval of the shareholders, of course, the process stands to make the company-and Joe-a whole lot richer.

Which brings us to that other thing: Money, moolah, dough-re-mi. It changes everything and everyone, even when you don't have it yet, as Joe all too suddenly is about to find out.

Does Joe's boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), really have Joe's best interests at heart? If so, why does he bring in those corporate lawyer types to renegotiate Joe's employment contract? Maybe the suits really are trying to screw him out of what he deserves, just like his brand new pal Jimmy warned him about. Never mind that Jimmy (Steve Martin) is an eccentric millionaire with plenty of unanswered questions about his own enigmatic background and motives. All Jimmy really wants to do is fix Joe up with his little sister, right? And what about Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), that pretty young company secretary with a crush on Joe? Was her only mistake ignoring that taboo about office romance?

Maybe not. But don't look for clues in the eye's of Mamet's characters, all of whom keep poker faces as they play their hidden hands in this adroitly plotted thriller about corporate espionage. Like Mamet's first directing effort "House of Games," "The Spanish Prisoner" is more a mental than a psychological puzzle. It's no surprise then to see magician Ricky Jay, technical adviser to the earlier film about a group of card hustlers, return with a small acting role in "Prisoner." The mystery is set up like a magic trick-the misdirection works because we want it to work.

Although the film deals with ideas, too (Mamet is too smart for it not to), such as the compromises that greed and vanity lead us to make and the difference between the rich and the rest of us-it's really just an elaborately choreographed dance whose satisfying suspense arises as much from its intellectual structure as from its emotional passion.

And the whole thing comes delivered with a tidy cautionary message astutely tailored for these particularly mistrustful times: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that someone isn't out to get you.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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