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‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 02, 1992

If you like your acting stagey, you can revel in "Glengarry Glen Ross." This adaptation of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play has an attention-getting cast for you, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin and Ed Harris. The effect is like a jazz ensemble performance, in which one instrumentalist comes forward, blows his horn, takes a bow, then lets someone else take a solo.

But though the performances are satisfying in a projected way, they're nullified by an uninspired atmosphere around them. Despite the colorful and witty utterances of its characters, "Glengarry" feels artificial and rarefied. It's an R-rated teleplay rather than a movie.

The stage version of this drama remains the best way to experience it. A pithy, nihilistic piece, it's about real estate salesmen living (and spiritually dying) by their profession. Slaves to the slogan "Always be closing," their careers are built on the perpetual selling of fraudulent illusion. They cloak the truth about their pointless existence (and their bogus wetlands offerings) with salty railings at luck, their "deadbeat" customers and each other.

In the movie, Mamet preserves many sections of the play, particularly the ones featuring lead Pacino -- the only successful contender among harried, luckless colleagues Lemmon, Arkin and Harris. Mamet also creates new character Baldwin, a no-nonsense salesman sent by the downtown management to light an intimidating fire under the staff. The movie opens as he gives Lemmon, Arkin and Harris a diabolical ultimatum. There will be an incentive competition, he announces. First prize is a Cadillac. Second prize is a measly set of steak knives. "Third prize," he concludes, "you're fired."

The movie, which also stars Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Pryce, is about the salesmen's desperate attempts to save their butts during one rainy, hopeless night. It's an evening full of the familiar Mamet-isms, the constantly interrupted banter, the ironic rejoinders and so forth. But director James Foley's attempts to "open up" the play to the outside world are dismal. The play takes place in the salesmen's office and a Chinese restaurant. Foley doesn't add much more than the street between. If his intention is to create a sense of claustrophobia, he also creates the (presumably) unwanted effect of a soundstage. There is no evidence of life outside the immediate world of the movie.

Lemmon plays Shelley Levene, an over-the-hill salesman of the old school, with appropriately downbeaten panic. He curses more in this movie than he has in his entire screen career. In fact, this veteran of an older, well-behaved generation almost seems embarrassed to use such language. Harris, Arkin, Pryce and Spacey (as the salesmen's dry-ice manager) are uniformly good.

As the right-stuff, fast-talking, school-of-hard-knocks salesman, Pacino enjoys his plum role to the fullest. The leading contender for that Cadillac, he spends most of the movie trying to close with skittish customer Pryce. A master of such things, he maintains an expert hold over the nervous man, even after Pryce's wife has ordered him to demand his money back. But although Pacino pulls off a fine performance, he doesn't nail it to the immortal wall. There is one person who would have -- Joe Mantegna, who starred in the stage debut. If any part had his name written all over it, it's this one.

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