With a movie like last week‘s Raging Bull, it’s easy to start gushing. It’s very hard to describe what it is that makes it so good, but it’s so easy to say something because I want/have to share how great it is. Glengarry Glen Ross, which I watched two nights ago, is a good movie, but not on that level.
The 1992 film is adapted from a 1984 Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name. The writer of the play, David Mamet, took it upon himself to write the screenplay, adding one significant scene but leaving the rest almost untouched. It is directed by James Foley.
The movie focuses on four real estate salesman (a more accurate description would be con men) who are feeling the pressure to perform. Kind of a New Age Death of a Salesman. They all occupy various states of sleaziness, skill, and incompetence during their work days. Al Pacino plays the most successful of the four, seen apart from the rest for the first half and only reuniting with them after establishing himself as superior. Jack Lemmon plays the old, washed up has been, desperate to hang on to save his chronically ill daughter and warped pride. This does evoke sympathy, but his character is so pathetic and sleazy in his attempts to scam others out of their money it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt. Ed Harris and Alan Arkin play the two other salesman, clearly the weaker half of the team in selling skill and character depth.
Pacino is masterful here. His deliberate speaking gives him a magnetism and you hang onto every word. All of the characters get angry and swear a lot, but Pacino’s is the ferocity you remember. Even amidst his failures, he is a much more formidable presence than the others. Lemmon is really good as the old wash up. His pitiful desperation and frustration makes you hate him. He’s too one-dimensional though, I couldn’t find any sympathy for him. He finished as more of an object than a human. Harris and Arkin do fine, but don’t have that much to work with, like Lemmon’s character they are more figures than men.
Their manager (Kevin Spacey) is another charmer. Devoted to maintaining the corporate machine (until, of course, he can profit by not maintaining it) he is cold and unsparing. He refuses to give the men the quality leads and drives them hard with no desire to make them comfortable or welcome.
Alec Baldwin has a fantastic cameo as the “motivational speaker” (the added scene that wasn’t in the play). He sets the tone for the ensuing events, in some ways the tension he engineers is false – just a plot device to move things along more quickly and urgently – but it works because of Baldwin. He stands in for that horrible new wave of bosses, those new consultants coming to talk your job into obsolescence with no knowledge or concern for history. He’s mean, he’s dirty, and he’s incredibly successful. “You drove a Hyundai to get here. I drove an eighty-thousand dollar BMW. THAT’S my name.” Another gem: “I made $970,000 last year. How much’d you make? You see pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing. Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids.” There is no mercy to be found here. No humanity really. Thank goodness we’ve evolved enough over these last few thousand years to get to this point. His drama makes it feel like he’s communicating some new world order, but really it’s just a simplification. It’s a hyper-efficient perfection of one of the oldest American maxims: “only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.”
The movie never manages to escape its original design. While good and at moments brilliant, it feels like a play on screen. It relies too much on its acting to reveal character and move the plot. Many scenes last too long and there’s not enough mystery. But it’s worth watching. Even though it was made in 1992, at heart it’s an 80s story. Baldwin’s retrospectively added scene shows a ruthlessness that was emerging. It was always there, but it usually lives behind the scenes. Here it’s right in front of us.
Photo: © 1992 – New Line Cinema