By and large, this adaptation of David Mamet’s 1984 update of middle-century tales of economic middle-American woe is a trenchant, vital work of writing enlivened by a cornucopia of destabilizing performances of the highest order. It is, admittedly, hard to square with the cinematic adaptation when so little of the piece actually benefits at all from being made into a film, visually speaking. But sometimes the felt force of the writing is so affective on its own you just have to let measly little things like “filmmaking” slide.
Admittedly, there’s something to Mamet’s harshly, claustrophobically stripped writing style that coalesces with the jagged edges of the acerbic visual storytelling that works in spite of its would-be failures as filmmaking. Specifically, the decision not to particularly open-up the play beyond its suffocating two-day focus is essential, allowing the material a claustrophobic feel to capture the claustrophobia of men torn apart by a job that encircles their lives. For the film, Mamet slightly altered his play about four real estate salesmen who will be fired at the end of the week if they don’t sell enough marks, but he made the crucial decision to avoid any and all hints of these men at home or their family lives. The end result is a work that captures the four as round-the-clock victims and agents of capitalism, left working for home lives that the film tacitly avoids depicting. Thereby, the film exposes the central paradox of capitalism: the need to work to benefit one’s everyday life, only to have that work overtake one’s life so that the purpose of the work becomes the work itself, thus folding in on itself as capitalism strangles its governing justification.
Frankly, the film probably would have been more focused had it captured a singular focus on the dingy, melancholy square hell of the office the four men work from, the rainy maelstrom of the outside world left an unknowable entity the men must hide from due to their crippling, unending commitment to their work. By allowing them to go outside, if only occasionally, the film sacrifices some of the stark simplicity of focusing on the dismal office, where the characters’ lives are defined excruciatingly and exclusively by their work lives and they are afforded no freedom whatsoever to escape from that work environment, if only for a second.
Admittedly, the trade-off is an either-or; if the Chinese restaurant serving as the film’s and the play’s second location allows the character’s a bit of unnecessary freedom, it is also the greatest noirish, neon-hued success of director James Foley – who elsewhere exhibits a functional, non-personal style that fits the functional, non-personal nature of modern capitalism depicted by the film perfectly. Still, it’s hard to argue the film doesn’t lose some of the singularity of the office location – of the characters being choked by the walls around them – that could have even further enhanced the brutalizing, harshly sterile nature of four men trapped in the closing walls of the room that is modern capitalism.
Not that it all necessarily matters with such a fine, cynically metronomic screenplay that measures out working-class poetry from the rasped, entropic mouths of some of the finest actors of the modern era. Mamet, for all his general disdain toward directors, knows how to showboat just enough as a writer to sell his not-quite-naturalist dialogue without over-kneading the material so that it falls flat.
For a director who has in recent years turned to a belabored form of free-market conservatism, the extent to which he writhes in the muck of modern on-the-ground capitalism in Glengarry Glen Ross is startling. Although there is an air of victimhood to some of the characters beset by their corporate higher-ups (Alec Baldwin is given a particularly nasty, scene-stealing role), there’s no sympathy to anyone involved. Even the most human – the old-school, past-his-prime Shelley Levine (Jack Lemmon) – is a swindling, treacherous huckster through and through. Mamet essays modern capitalism as a dog-eat-dog hellhole of self-destructive verbal abuse and brutish modern masculinity slicing at its own throat.
It isn’t the most nuanced or complete critique – there are no female characters, nor any non-white males to really explore the underclass created by modern capitalism. But it is a particularly bruised expose of bootstrap theory as a cutthroat lexicon of modern men trying to outsell and out-think one another so that they don’t fall underneath the stampede of other boots being pulled up only so that they can stomp down again on their fellow humans.
With that grungy, necrotic, Wild West depiction of modern American business practices in tow, Mamet’s screenplay mostly rests on Mamet’s actors to sell the ruthlessly cunning dialogue without turning it into a glory-showcase, and they pull it off in spades. The Alec Baldwin showpiece moment, essentially one monologue with slight interceptions from other performers, is the standout, Baldwin relishing and rolling over the hurtful, tactile dialogue and selling it like the devil’s own defense attorney. Beyond that, Spacey is perfectly snidely and nebbish as the office manager of the four real estate salesmen who are the focus of our story, giving a performance that shows off exactly the sour-faced, bilious attitude that would make his performances famous throughout the rest of the 1990s.
The four main players, though, are the aforementioned Jack Lemmon as the most soft-spoken of the four – soft-spoken only as a masquerade to his bitter, acidic underbelly of old-school American masculine violence – Al Pacino as hot player Ricky Roma, who is on a streak of late, Ed Harris as the most conniving member of the crew Dave Moss, and Alan Arkin as the brow-beaten George Aaronow. All four are tasked with staying on top of sales for the week, for the two who come up bottom will be fired, and all four actors sell their cut-throat individualism and the false airs of geniality lightly blanketing a seedy cunning underneath.
The sales don’t really matter though. Mamet’s world is one in which the losers lose, and the winners lose even harder, selling their soul for momentary success only to find themselves caught in the whirlpool of bigger-and-bigger corporate capitalism until they drown in it. Success only breeds anxiety and pain, and if Mamet’s story doesn’t tell the half of the loss draped over the non-white, non-male regions of American society, he understands well the fundamental inhumanity of a system for which success only means another day at the office hoping not to fail.