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Review: Stilted script traps actors in 'Spanish Prisoner'

Scenes from April 5, 1998
Web posted at: 3:02 p.m. EDT (1902 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I've always felt that writers who wind up inventing their own cliches deserve at least a little bit of our sympathy. They've accomplished the main goal of any creator worth his or her salt -- to develop an individual voice through which they can convey their particular worldview -- but then, as they continue to comment within the existing framework, they have to live with the lingering impression that they're repeating themselves, even when they aren't.

Bergman's death obsession and ticking clocks are a prime example. In music, you could point to Springsteen's car and highway imagery or Dylan's intricate 1960s surrealism. The time comes, though, when these people naturally evolve and back away from the format that was once a revelation, hopefully before it becomes obvious and tiresome.

It's time for David Mamet to back off. His new movie, "The Spanish Prisoner" (which he wrote and directed) is an unbelievable mish-mash of Mamet-isms, the most glaring and obnoxious being a bent toward dialogue that sounds like it's being read from coffee-stained parchments rather than spoken, off the cuff, by actual human beings. This is another "House of Games"-style exercise in trickery, so the argument could be made that it's supposed to sound phony. Well, go ahead and make that argument. I, on the other hand, will argue that it's laughably pretentious and (dare I say it) no good.

I know, I know. Where's the sympathy? Well, I am sympathetic. I've enjoyed a great deal of Mamet's work over the years. I just listed "The Edge" (Mamet's wacky survivalism treatise starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin) as one of the 10 best movies of last year, and I've always enjoyed the testosterone terror banter of "Glengarry Glen Ross," among others. But Mamet, who is by no means a dummy, needs to indulge in a moment of self-reflection and recognize that things have finally gotten out of hand. Both Springsteen and Dylan realized that they were edging toward self-parody and set about re-inventing themselves. Mamet, though, seems to think that overt self-parody is some higher plane of accomplishment. The world in his head, no matter how contrived, is the only one that matters.

"The Spanish Prisoner" stars Campbell Scott as Joe Ross, a corporate drone who's invented some sort of mysterious, money-making process for his company. ("The process," as everyone literally refers to it time and again, is represented by a notebook full of mathematical formulas. You never find out exactly what the numbers mean.) During a business trip to what looks to be the Caribbean, Joe meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a mysterious jetsetter who pries, in a convoluted way (of course), into Joe's business affairs. Jimmy asks Joe to deliver a package to his sister in New York City, and just this small favor brings Joe into a web of deceit and corruption that would be thrilling if it were remotely believable or even passingly life-like.

There's a whole lot more to the twisted plot, so much, in fact, that it would be impossible to convey in two pages. If you saw "House of Games" you get the idea, and, if you haven't, you may watch "The Spanish Prisoner" wondering if there's actually any idea to get. Anyway, the story eventually turns into little more than a posing smart-guy's version of "The Game," but with an actorly obsession toward delivering every breath and pause of Mamet's dialogue as if the script had been conceived by Jehovah rather than Dave from Chicago.

Mamet also directed, so the stiff characterizations and ridiculous line readings are obviously intentional. Unfortunately, that doesn't make them any more enjoyable. It's impossible to explain how everybody sounds without actually hearing this stuff being spoken out loud. I just jotted a couple of sentences in my notebook while I was watching the movie to give you some idea of the flavor. Try this one on: "Money. It impresses everyone, but what did it ever do for one?" Or how about: "You're going back to New York? Might I ask you a service?"

Those are just the full sentences. Most of the beginning of the movie consists of teams of actors strategically starting and stopping half-completed thoughts while everybody talks over the top of each other. If someone says "but ... but ... but," you can bet the farm that Mamet wrote the word three times on the page, and that's exactly what the movie plays like, a bunch of people unquestioningly reciting every hem and haw put forth by the artiste. It gets so silly after a while, I was waiting for someone to pull a Victor Borge and start reciting the punctuation out loud. The automaton-derived performances (especially a truly noxious one by Rebecca Pidgeon), when coupled with the Great Pronouncements, eventually had me gnashing my teeth.

A better title would have been "The Stepford Actors."

"The Spanish Prisoner" contains some bad language, and no sex. The way Mamet's been writing lately, the characters probably wouldn't be able to recognize a come-on anyway. Contains a great score by Carter Burwell, the best in the business. Rated PG. 112 minutes.


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