Watching Mamet's debut as a filmmaker, you get the feeling that before making it, the director screened a lot of Hitchcock and "The Sting" and read a lot of Freud. Out of all this Mamet, who based his script on a story he wrote with Jonathan Katz, has concocted a wildly profane stew of twists and surprises. And for the most part, the ways in which the various elements combine are enormously diverting. It's a clever, intelligent piece of work with an impulse to surprise and entertain. It's also a crock.
The central piece in this puzzle is Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), a repressed psychiatrist and author of a bestselling book, "Driven: Compulsion and Obsession in Everyday Life." Margaret's life is a classic case of "Physician, heal thyself"; one look at her and it's clear that her place is on the couch, not beside it. The plot is activated by a patient named Billy (Stephen Goldstein), a compulsive gambler who comes to Margaret for help. Margaret harbors the secret fear -- which is a common occupational dilemma for shrinks -- that she's powerless to help her patients make real changes in their lives; that she, and her profession, are a scam. And Billy, who tells her that he's $25,000 in the hole to a gambler named Mike, pushes all her buttons.
Actually Billy is laying a trap for Margaret and she falls right into it -- a trap that's sprung on the audience as well. Convinced that desperate action is required, Margaret goes to a poolroom called the House of Games, and in doing so is plunged into a shady nighttime world of con men and bunko artists that couldn't be more different from the professional milieu she's used to.
Mamet's point, though, is that, deep down, the differences are only superficial. The movie, like his play "Edmond" and his script for "The Untouchables," is about the education of an innocent. At the House of Games, Margaret meets Mike (Joe Mantegna), who becomes her guide through this underworld of confidence games and byzantine stings. In a sense, Mike's relationship to Margaret is similar, at least at first, to the role she plays with her patients: He's the revealer of forbidden secrets and, though clearly not in any clinically appropriate sense, the path to self-knowledge. But if Mike is a kind dark twin to Margaret who takes the doctor as his patient, then he is your worst psychiatric dreams come true -- the analyst as devil.
Mantegna's performance here is the main reason to get excited. Mantegna, who, it seems, is beginning to play De Niro to Mamet's Scorsese, has a rare gift for an actor -- he makes scummy amorality irresistible. Mike is like a walking oil slick; pure sleaze in a sharkskin suit. But Mike is also a consummate artist -- nobody can stage a con like he can. And when he sets the hook in Margaret, she stays hooked.
Mantegna has the perfect delivery for Mamet's artificial, tough-guy style. With his cupid lips cocked to one side, he can make Mamet's lines sound spontaneous, like jazzy, hard-boiled riffing. Lindsay Crouse, unfortunately, only draws your attention to the fact that nobody ever, ever talks this way. Crouse has no juice as an actress -- playing repressed seems natural to her, and so there's no tension in the performance.
Essentially, the movie is an intricately staged, symbol-laden exercise in cinematic sleight of hand. But Mamet won't leave it at that. He insists on asserting himself as a thinker and an artist: He demands his moral space. The look of the film, which was shot to look stagy by Juan Ruiz Anchia, is stiff and overdeliberate. Watching it, you feel as if Mamet were in the seat next to you repeating, "This isn't real, this is ... artifice." The style isn't expressive, though -- it's a drag on our enjoyment. And so is Mamet's moral hectoring. If he were a more revelatory thinker, this might not pose a problem. But Mamet is a back-alley philosopher trying to step up in class. There's not as much weight behind his punches as he seems to think.
House of Games, which opens today at the Cineplex Odeon and Wednesday at the Dupont Circle, is rated R and contains strong language and adult situations.