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American Buffalo

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: American Buffalo

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz
Director: Michael Corrente
Rated: R
RunTime: 88 Minutes
Release Date: September 1996
Genre: Drama

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 verbal ripostes.

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 antique store.

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 thievery.

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 ferocity.

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

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