IN DAVID MAMET'S "House of Games," the Games are fun but the House is a flimsy pyramid of cards.
The wacky incongruity works when debuting director Mamet has tongue in cheek. But all too often he's rechewing film noir, Hitchcock twists and MacGuffins, as well as the Freudian mumbo-jumbo already masticated tasteless by so many cine-kids.
He's also showcasing a bloodless performance by actress Lindsay Crouse, his wife.
She's Margaret Ford, a psychiatrist and best-selling author caught up in the underworld of professional trickery. "House" is multi-level scam: At the top level -- the B.S. world of '80s yups and Manhattanites -- Dr. Ford is fooling the world with her pop-shrink bestseller "Driven: Obsessions and Compulsions in Everyday Life." And down in the metaphorical scam basement, a group of con artists (time-warped from Prohibition-era Chicago) plies its trade. Apparently, they have all seen "The Sting."
The fascinated Dr. Ford goes slumming -- ostensibly to help a patient friend out, then write a book about the tricks of this trade. But she's more than interested in chief con man Mike (Joe Mantegna) and learning, as he puts it, in "things about yourself that you'd rather not know."
The film takes on more authority with Mantegna's appearance as the dark, smoothie prince of deception. His five-o'clock-stubbled Mike pushes Crouse into the realm of human response, but when she's on her own, she has the glacial facial quality of a Liv Ullman, without the vulnerability. It's hard to tell whether she's misdirected or tired.
The limited fun comes in the abundance of one-liners, only some of them intentional. "Let's talk turkey," says Crouse when she, a well-dressed professional, confronts Mike in his dark and seedy bar. "You came back like a dog to its own vomit," snaps Mike at Dr. Ford. Later, after being shot at, he says: "Thank you sir, may I have another?"
You may not want another. HOUSE OF GAMES (R) --
At area theaters.