Jamie Kennedy's favorite movie review site
Home Reviews  Articles  Release Dates Coming Soon  DVD  Top 20s Criticwatch  Search
Public Forums  Festival Coverage  Contests About 

Overall Rating

Awesome: 10.34%
Worth A Look: 27.59%
Just Average: 0%
Pretty Crappy: 24.14%

3 reviews, 11 user ratings

Latest Reviews

Hanagatami by Jay Seaver

Predator, The by Jay Seaver

Fahrenheit 11/9 by Rob Gonsalves

Madeline's Madeline by Jay Seaver

Won't You Be My Neighbor? by Rob Gonsalves

Brothers' Nest by Jay Seaver

Mandy by Peter Sobczynski

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum by Jay Seaver

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms by Jay Seaver

Field Guide to Evil by Jay Seaver

subscribe to this feed

American Buffalo
[AllPosters.com] Buy posters from this movie
by Jack Sommersby

"The Worst David Mamet Adaptation, Bar None"
1 stars

It's the kind of dreadful film that makes you appreciate otherwise-forgettable ones like "The Garbage Pail Kids".

In 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross, the dialogue and conversational rhythms were gloriously alive, and the actors gave quite the clear impression they were having the time of their lives. Writer David Mamet's words were sometimes forced and stagy yet were laced with his typically barbed wit; watching the actors' faces as they spoke, you'd swear honey were dripping from their lips in ecstasy of being afforded some truly spectacular dialogue to speak. The film was based on Mamet's play, and Mamet himself did the adaptation : the result was a smashingly successful symphony of aural and (surprisingly) visual pleasures. The same fate should be in store for Mamet's latest adaptation, American Buffalo. After all, the formidable talents of Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie), Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue), and Sean Nelson (Fresh) are involved and have proven themselves verbal pros, and the Mamet dialogue should spark them (and they them). Alas, the film is a titanic disaster from start to finish.

The setting is a desolate, business-depleted neighborhood in New Jersey. The sidewalks and storefronts are so barren of human existence that it's likely just under a year away from becoming permanently indigent; the atmosphere is consistently drab -- gray skies and mauve-colored buildings encompass the neighborhood like a highly-textured, doom-laden shroud. The centerpiece of the action is an antique shop where the owner, Don (Franz), listlessly goes through his daily ritual of opening up and presiding over a business that doesn't appear to have had a customer since Elvis was alive. Don is one of those guys who've already passed the middle-age mark and knows life probably isn't going to get much better, but he's a creature of habit and demonstrates admirable reserves of decency and patience. He's befriended a thirteen-year-old street kid named Bobby (Sean Nelson) who hangs out in the store during the day in lieu of having nothing better to do. Joining them is the grungy, three-time loser, Teacher (Hoffman), who wears a filthy black coat that keeps threatening to sprout wings and leap off his back. Teacher is an expert at formulating small-time grifts but an absolute zero when it comes to actually following through on them; he's too juiced-up all the time and is so inwardly turbulent that he turns the slightest, most harmless details into laughably catastrophic proportions. (In case you haven't surmised yet, Hoffman's basically recycling his Ratso Rizzo role from Midnight Cowboy.) He's a constant agitator of nerves, and Don and Bobby are to commended for enduring him, yet we're curious as to Don's justification for putting up with him.

They're a strange trio, no doubt, but they manage to pass the days away in this depressing building. Teacher is always bitching about the injustice of his being reduced to living in a hotel and not being higher up on the economic and social ladder. They're worthy of it, he argues, and are just one good score away from prosperity -- a staple belief among many cons. Don acts as counterbalance and plays devil's advocate by occasionally throwing in inconvenient aspects like logic and common sense; you realize he tolerates this man simply out of loneliness and eternal boredom -- any talk is better than none, he probably surmises. Bobby's a different story. He's trying to pick up as much knowledge as he can, and Teacher might randomly voice as semi-sensible tidbit to be stored away for future use; Bobby's beginning to work the streets and is wise enough to hang around two guys who (presumably) know how the world works. Their nonexistent prosperity might not mirror their knowledge, but it makes them just as valid a source on what doesn't work as opposed to what succeeds. (Sometimes knowing every con is as invaluable as mastering every pro.) Innately, Bobby doesn't respect them at all -- he needs them, though, for the time being.

The plot finally gets under way, and you groan the moment you hear it involves a rare nickel called an American Buffalo. It's more than obvious when a film's main plot component functions as a direct reflective upon the title we're in store for an allegoric lesson in Philosophy 101, for the coin will not only function as a plot device but a catalyst for the unlayering and analyzing the moral and behavioral idiosyncrasies of these three characters. It seems a customer of Don's bought the coin from the glass case for twenty dollars, with Don finding out later the man is a coin collector and naturally figures it must be worth a whole lot more than the price the man offered and what Don would've settled for. He relays the story to Teacher, and this grifter quickly sizes up the situation and sees it as a grand opportunity: he works on Don and plays upon his insecurities and male pride by making the collector out to be a no-good devil who knowingly scammed Don and is deserving of any retaliation. And it works. Don gets worked up into such an irate funk that he's soon transferring all his frustrations over to the collector; he starts to see things Teacher's way, and the two plot to rob the collector's house and retrieve that coin, which will (hint, hint) restore them with a newfound sense of pride and justice.

You might be surprised at how quickly Teacher manages to turn a transparent situation into an overblown mission of dire necessity. But he likes emotionally vulnerable partners because they're easy to control -- if they start to get nervous and have second thoughts, a subtly mentioned barb can pierce their thin layer of pride and restore their junked-up reasoning for going through with the scheme. There might be a little money to be had for the coin and the rest of the collector's things, but it's not Teacher's primary motivation. It's clear that the surface value is irrelevant in relation to what the matter really comes down to: the rich and powerful (the collector) always managing to step on the unsuccessful poor (Don and Teacher). They have nothing, and the mere thought of someone more economically sound belting them one more round is too much to bear; it's not that they have to get the coin back inasmuch as they must get it back, for, in this, all the honor lies. Hoffman's Teacher theoretically serves more or less the same function as John Heard's Vietnam-scarred soldier in Ivan Passer's 1981 psychological drama Cutter's Way (which was unfairly neglected at the time but has remained vividly etched in my mind ever since -- it's also picked up a considerable cult following). There, Heard's John Cutter targeted a powerful oil tycoon as the chief and only justifiable suspect in a teenage girl's murder. It wasn't that there was a lot of concrete evidence pointing in the millionaire's direction, but this man symbolized everything Cutter blamed for losing the war: money and politics. And Cutter's scheme to blackmail him (thinking that if the man paid Cutter to keep his mouth shut that this would count as incriminating evidence) was inconceivably stupid and ended in a triple-tragedy. Teacher's plan is a bit more rational, yet he and Cutter share the same feral hatred of the rich (and, more precisely, in Teacher's case, the ones better off than him, which isn't saying a whole lot, but they're all categorized as the same). Accepting that society is putting the squeeze to you is too generalized to conceptually deal with; people like Teacher and Cutter convince themselves that an actual person must pay -- if not, then no battle can be won and thus no clear evidence of victory can be had or accepted.

The rest of American Buffalo involves Don and Teacher plotting and getting together a team to carry the plan out. (The film covers a twenty-four-hour span.) They have sketchy information that the collector has gone out of town for the weekend, and the house should be easy pickings. But Don isn't as foolhardy as Teacher -- he's insistent on rock-solid planning and weeding out any potential cons. Bobby gets wind of the plan and wants in on it, knowing it'll help establish a rep for himself and give him some clout on the streets; but while Teacher thinks he might be useful, Don heatedly refuses to involve him, and the trio have a lot to think about before the big event. Tensions are soon flaring and the calm solemnity of the store turns into a feeding frenzy of wounded egos and flaring anxieties.

American Buffalo doesn't have much of a plot, and it's always been to Mamet's credit that he generally doesn't need one. His true gift lies in combining character and dialogue and spatially incorporating them into a particular architectural backdrop that eventually starts to put a squeeze on them as their threatened and wounded masculinities organically surface to do battle with those who dare violate that sacred part of them. But the structure backfires this time. Maybe if a technically-proficient director with some visual zeal and a natural instinct for film rhythm had taken the helm American Buffalo wouldn't come off as dim as it does; there's not so much as a single solitary iota of underlying tension, and the film's stage origin becomes readily apparent. Michael Corrente (whose debut, Federal Hill, was nothing more than adequate) directs at a funeral pace and seems to have used a remote control to simply switch the camera on and off. (His director's chair must have had deep indentions of his ass in it.) The antique shop is dreary enough (but we get the point) without Corrente sentencing the audience to wallow in it. Of course the environment is bland and is obviously a direct reflection of the characters' moods, but we comprehend, absorb, and tire of this quickly -- there's nothing nothing kinetic going on beneath the scenes that a viewer couldn't similarly get from reading the play. The film just sits there and sits there, and you keep waiting for all of this consistent drabness to play itself out or pay off in some unforeseen way. It doesn't, and you wonder why people bothered to film an adaptation if they haven't done anything to cinematically vivify it. Most plays never manage to escape their stage origins on the silver screen, but some (To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday; Frankie and Johnny) have managed to expand and open up the material so we can breathe and get a freshly perceptive take on it. Glengarry Glen Ross never erased its origins, but it was imaginatively realized by the stupendous director James Foley (At Close Range): cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia bathed the film in beautiful artificial light; editor Bud Smith gave the narrative a distinctive flow; and Foley was able to combine everything and give the two settings (a real-estate office and Chinese restaurant) so much silky texture that it stood on its own proud feet. This doesn't mean that Foley's breathtaking craftsmanship sandbagged the character: he simply gave them an organic playground to feel comfortable in and employed the camera in a subjectively observant way -- the audience was put right into the action, yet it didn't feel the least bit intrusive and the viewer felt warmly invited to be there.

Forrente hasn't anything approaching Foley's talent, but does that mean he was excused to sit down on the job and produce this lazy concoction of bottomed-out images and words? And that's all it comes down to, because there's no viable groundwork supplying girth to the dramatics. With a total abandonment of stylistics Forrente seems to be saying, "Hey, the great dialogue can speak for itself! I'm just here to capture it on film and have my name next to bigwigs like Dustin Hoffman and David Mamet! Ain't Hollywood swell!?" Given this, it's not too surprising that the actors look unguided and seem in disarray as to where their justification of space actually belongs; they just linger from place to place and it never comes off as habitually natural. (Their body movements reminds one of those off-off-Broadway productions where some idiot director has instructed the actors to move "naturally," and they come off looking like they've been lobotomized.)

Dennis Franz has proven himself a worthy interpreter of gritty, urban material, and he shows an amazing reserve of variety here. Don is a man who puts up with a whole lot more than he should, and Franz clues you into his deserving need of a break. It's not exactly inspired performance per se, but this highly-watchable actor convinces that Don believes in the hokum he's spouting even if Franz doesn't. He matches up well with Dustin Hoffman, and, under different circumstances, maybe the two could've brought out some untapped bravado in each other and got a genuine give-and-take routine going. But Hoffman's so intent on giving a rigidly-controlled performance that he winds up draining all the life force from it. His Teacher should be more ingratiating than he is, and this creates an inconsistency that we just can't swallow: We know Don needs company, yet it's just too hard to believe that Teacher doesn't have a hearty collection of Don's fist imprints on his face. There's no dramatic reason for him to be this utterly obnoxious and unpleasant. Hoffman's not without a tremendous amount of nuanced skill, but the performance is all on one level -- he starts out grating and remains that way till the bitter end. The film's indigestible enough, and Hoffman just digs the blade even deeper. Sean Nelson was appealing and displayed a wonderful intuitiveness in his debut, Fresh, but he's not given much to work with. The filmmakers gave Bobby the least attention, and the continuity gaps show; Nelson's underutilized, and it's a shame that he wasn't called on to anything more than function as a plot device.

Michael Corrente can be blamed for plenty, and that goes for David Mamet, too. His screenplay is a third-rate effort that gives the impression of being pulled out of a closet with about an inch of dust on it. The whole production feels like it was based on one of those "deep" scripts by a first-year film student -- the writing lacks definition and skims by on concepts from past literal-minded films, so it's completely devoid of distinctiveness. And you feel embarrassed for most of the actors at gamely attempting to bring gravitas to such vanilla material. The meaning behind the coin and the function it serves in mirroring Don and Teacher's depressive woes is tiresome and grows even more insulting as it goes along. I kept waiting for Mamet to trot out on the screen and announce that all the awfulness is an intended joke, we're free to go home, and our money will be refunded at the door. No such thing happens, alas, and the audience is given the worst possible sentence: to stay in our seats and take this cut-rate piece of hodgepodge seriously. The Great Houdini himself never had to work so hard at such an illusion.

I can think of better ways to spend your time -- like watching a marathon showing of the "Faces of Death" series.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=630&reviewer=327
originally posted: 10/02/07 20:56:34
[printer] printer-friendly format  

User Comments

11/21/11 David Brown Made the mistake of seeing a local production of the play. As bad as the movie. 1 stars
8/21/06 Carol Baker This movie goes nowhere. Where are you, Dustin Hoffan. Are you getting too old for work 2 stars
2/05/06 Anthony Bulloch Taut, grim, beautifully acted - an allegory (reminiscent of Waiting for Godot) 5 stars
9/07/05 Captain Craig Might have been better on the stage....but I doubt it. Very wordy..saying nothing! 1 stars
11/07/03 Agent Sands (previously Mr. Hat) Very entertaining, with great performances from all 3 people. Mamet's script is excellent. 5 stars
4/10/03 Jack Bourbon Another great Mamet movie. Hoffman and Franz make great dirtbags. 4 stars
3/09/03 Jack Sommersby Godawful Mamet adaptation is boring and listless. Franz is only bright spot. 1 stars
10/17/02 Charles Tatum Truly boring and stupid 1 stars
7/06/99 Roop Sean Nelson is great, and just because it looks like a play doesn't make it bad cinema. 5 stars
12/11/98 Scion of Graveheart Blech times hundred. Pure crap. 1 stars
Note: Duplicate, 'planted,' or other obviously improper comments
will be deleted at our discretion. So don't bother posting 'em. Thanks!
Your Name:
Your Comments:
Your Location: (state/province/country)
Your Rating:

Discuss this movie in our forum

  13-Sep-1996 (R)


  02-Feb-1997 (MA)

Directed by
  Michael Corrente

Written by
  David Mamet

  Dustin Hoffman
  Dennis Franz
  Sean Nelson

Home Reviews  Articles  Release Dates Coming Soon  DVD  Top 20s Criticwatch  Search
Public Forums  Festival Coverage  Contests About 
Privacy Policy | | HBS Inc. |   
All data and site design copyright 1997-2017, HBS Entertainment, Inc.
Search for
reviews features movie title writer/director/cast