Thursday, April 22, 2010

Coffee is for Closers

Film: Glengarry Glen Ross
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop

Certain aspects of film can elevate a mediocre movie to a good one, and can take a good movie into the realm of true brilliance. In the case of Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s not the plot or the art direction, but the dialogue, the scintillating, beautiful, amazing dialogue that couldn’t sound more natural if you snuck a tape recorder in and caught real people having real conversations.

Well, that and some of the most brilliant casting you could ever hope to come across should you live to be 100. This film is a nearly perfect blend of personalities, styles, and, most importantly, what we expect of these actors from past roles. There are certain things we come to expect from certain actors, and Glengarry Glen Ross delivers in every case.

The story revolves around a shady real estate office where the agents are capable, willing, and instructed to con, push, and otherwise do anything they possibly can to sell parcels of land. It’s a shady business, rich with promises and not so rich with anything but what the salesmen want as their commissions. However, sales are down. The leads they have are terrible, and no one is selling much of anything. All of that has to change, and to ensure it does, there will be some changes around the office.

We are quickly introduced to our main players. Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon) is currently on a down streak, but he’s been a top performer in years past. At the moment, though, he hasn’t sold anything for the month. Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) is the man currently atop the sales board. He looks the part of a slick hustler, the flopping mop of hair, ever-present chewing gum, and faux casual demeanor. George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) is even further down than Shelley, a man completely beaten by life. Similarly beaten is Dave Moss (Ed Harris), but Moss isn’t willing to go down without a fight. Running herd over all of them is John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), who reacts to the rudeness, lack of respect, and outright hostility of his salesmen by countering with complete contempt for all of them.

Into this happy family walks Blake (Alec Baldwin), a successful salesmen who, he gleefully tells the others, cleared nearly a million dollars the previous year. There’s a new sales competition at the office. The salesman who brings in the most money wins a Cadillac. Second place gets a set of cheap steak knives. Third and fourth place get handed their walking papers.

So, into an already cutthroat office comes this deadly competition. The other prize for the top finishers, aside from keeping their jobs, are new sales leads, actual good leads that might result in real sales. While Roma is convinced he can work with what he has because he’s on a hot streak, Shelley connives his way into getting the leads for himself by bribing the office manager. Moss and Arronow decide that rather than wait, they’ll break into the office and steal the leads for themselves, and sell them to a competitor.

It’s a straightforward story. There aren’t a lot of real surprises in what happens in general. What makes this movie sing, aside from the wonderful casting, is dialogue that is as good or better than anything ever written for the stage or screen. This is purely natural dialogue like real people talking, not actors on a stage or in front of cameras. Half sentences, people talking over each other, real emotion, as if the men were not acting in roles, but really living the lives of these men. This is David Mamet at his strongest, at the height of his power.

But it’s the casting I truly love here. There isn’t man in the world better at playing a down-and-out loser than Jack Lemmon, and he’s never better than here. Al Pacino is as good as it gets when given an oily character he can really sink his teeth into. Johnathan Pryce, Roma’s customer James Lingk, is a perfect chameleon on screen, able to play anything he’s given, and he does it here brilliantly. Alec Baldwin is in the film for all of about seven minutes, and yet he is one of the most memorable characters in the film, he leaves such a massive footprint.

For all this, my absolute favorite in this film is Kevin Spacey. There is not a single actor I have ever seen who can deliver a line with such utter contempt for the person to whom he is speaking like Spacey can. He can muster up such incredible disdain both in his tone and his facial expression that it’s impossible not to believe him. It would be nearly impossible to have him speak that line to me and not take offense at it, because I’d be convinced that he meant it. He’s that good, and he’s that honest when he speaks it. The man is a master.

This is not a happy film. Good things do not happen in Glengarry Glen Ross. You will not come away from this film with happy thoughts and good feelings. But you will come away with a genuine appreciation for the power of the language and of tremendous writing and characterization.

Why to watch Glengarry Glen Ross: Astonishingly good casting and better dialogue.
Why not to watch: If you’re prudish, the profanity comes hot and fast.

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