Review by Steve Rhodes|
3 stars out of 4
David Mamet is one of the most brilliant of today's playwrights
and screenwriters. His scripts for the movies include VANYA ON 42ND
STREET, HOFFA, HOMICIDE, THINGS CHANGE, THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE VERDICT,
and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. There are also several plays of
his for which he wrote the movie scripts including OLEANNA, ABOUT LAST
NIGHT, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, and HOUSE OF GAMES. The last two films are
incredible tours de force and put him at the top of my list for writers
worth looking for. His scripts are highly intelligent with every line
worth pondering, and his characters engage each other with constant
One of his classic and early plays, AMERICAN BUFFALO, has not been
made into a movie until now. Producer Gregory Mosher got playwright
and one time director Michael Corrente (FEDERAL HILL) to direct
AMERICAN BUFFALO. They wanted Dustin Hoffman to play the lead in this
three man play, but at first he turned them down. As Hoffman tells the
story in the press kit, "Michael told me he felt there were three great
male roles in the American Theater: Stanley in 'A Streetcar Named
Desire;' Willy Loman in 'Death of a Salesman;' and Teach in AMERICAN
BUFFALO. ... I recalled that twenty years ago I heard from another
crazy Italian filmmaker about a cab driver in New York, and I didn't
pay much attention to it." He finally took the role of Teach, the
small time gambler, crook, and general lowlife.
As Hoffman's costar, they got Dennis Franz from the TV series
"NYPD Blues" to play the junk store owner and fellow crook Donny. In
the only other role in the film they cast Sean Nelson (FRESH) as the
wannabe burglar Bobby.
Most of Mamet's plays that are made into movies do not feel like
plays, but AMERICAN BUFFALO has all of the claustrophobia of a play.
All of the action takes place in or just outside Donny's junk shop cum
Teach tells us that, "If I had kept everything my old man threw
out, I'd be a wealthy man today." Well, Donny's store seems to be
where all the stuff from our childhood went, but he isn't making much
money so he spends his waking hours gambling with Teach and his other
friends and trying to figure out ways to rise cash through petty
As Donny relates to Teach, a man came into his shop and paid $90
for a Buffalo nickel that Donny thought was worthless. Eventually,
Donny becomes convinced that this guy is a big time coin dealer who
must have a fortune in coins in his house. Donny decides to pin his
hopes on his young and inexperienced protege Bobby as the person to
break in and steal the loot.
Teach is aghast at this decision since he wants to be cut in on
the action. Outraged, he argues with Donny, "All I'm saying is don't
confuse business with pleasure." He goes on to say that, "Loyalty is
fine, but this is business."
Most of the show has the two would be rich con men arguing about
how the crime will be pulled off. Typical of these is the discussion
about where the theoretical coins are hidden. Most of their logic is
full of wild and changing suppositions, but they squabble with great
Teach is the cynical philosopher of play. As their plans and
friendship begins to disintegrate in front of their eyes, he muses
that, "The world is lies. There is no friendship." He says, "We live
like the cavemen." In one of his summations toward the end, he
declares, "I go out there everyday. There is nothing out there."
All of the people give fine performances. Hoffman says of his
character that, "On the surface, Teach is an ineffective, petty
criminal, but what is intriguing is the unexpected vulnerability and
complexity he reveals." Here is where I begin to have problems with
the film and where I find it one of my least favorite, albeit still
excellent, works of Mamet's.
The Teach character as written by Mamet and played by Hoffman is
certainly intense, but not especially complex. In fact, the main
failing of the film is that too often it becomes tedious and little
more than a mechanism for delivering some admittedly fine lines.
Whereas all of Mamet's other work are highly involving, this one
is too distant and self-indulgent. I do think it is an excellent
movie, but for someone who has delivered so much better, I left the
screening feeling disappointed. I had expected more.
AMERICAN BUFFALO runs just 1:28. It is rated R for frequent bad
language. The language was natural for the characters and never used
to shock so I had no problem with it. The film should be fine for any
teenager. Flaws and all, the film is excellent, and I recommend it and
give it ***.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes