Written and Directed by: David Mamet
There are few people, precious few, who really have a gift for turning the English language into music. Most writers probably think they do, but if they really did, I wouldn’t be referring to them as ‘most writers.’ But David Mamet has that gift. He can take a sentence that doesn’t really make sense if you think about it and make it seem like Moses brought it down from Mount Sinai.
Take this line for example:
Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.
The line is spoken early in “Heist” by Mickey Bergman (Danny DeVito), who’s trying to convince Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) to delay his retirement and come back to do one last job. On the face of it, this sentence shouldn’t make sense. But, for whatever reason, you know exactly what it means. This is the power of David Mamet.
I count James Foley’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” as one of my favorite films. Mamet’s screenplay for that film, an adaptation of his own play, is masterful. But the few films I’ve seen that David Mamet has both written and directed have never struck a chord with me. I do, though, love heist movies. And I’ll always be a fan of Mamet’s writing style. So I went into this film with high hopes. And I found elements in the film that both exemplify what I love about Mamet and what I think holds him back as a writer/director.
Hackman stars as Joe, a life-long criminal who’s ready to hang it up. The only thing that keeps him in the game is the respect he has for his crew - Bob (Delroy Lindo), Pinky (Ricky Jay) and Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon), who also happens to be his wife (and Mamet’s). But he’s lured into doing one last heist, the “Swiss job,” by DeVito’s Mickey. Mickey’s the kind of guy who doesn’t mind exploiting an old man’s desire to sail away into the sunset - or using some shady tricks to make sure he gets his way.
The job comes with one condition: Joe has to bring Mickey’s nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell) along for the ride. And this is where things begin to go wrong. The rest of the film is a kind of chess match full of double-crosses, double-double-crosses, triple-crosses that look like double-crosses and vice versa.
The problem with writing a movie with so much sleight of hand is that, if it’s overused, it eventually becomes meaningless. I found myself simply waiting to get through certain scenes of “Heist” just to see what was really going to happen. When characters start double-triple-crossing each other, they often end up right back where they started. It’s like adding 1 and -1: technically, you’ve been doing math but it’s not getting you anywhere.
Here, I think, is the problem with David Mamet directing his own films. He is a man who has a reputation for being precious about his dialogue - down to the syllable. And when he becomes the director responsible for interpreting his own words, it seems like the actors get cut out of the equation. There is a lot of masterful dialogue in this movie, but I often felt that the actors weren’t allowed to make it their own. It’s like watching a play where the understudies have to come in at the last minute: they know the words but not the intentions behind them.
Not that the acting in this movie is bad. It just doesn’t feel right. It’s too staged, too self-conscious. What makes a heist movie work is the sleight of hand involved, the process of getting an audience to look to the left while you make your move on the right. But magicians aren’t as impressive when you’re studying their every move to see how the trick is done. Plus, there are times when Mamet seems to think his writing is cooler than it really is.
I am, however, recommending this film. There are some clever set-ups and payoffs. And it’s entertaining, if only because of the inventiveness of Mamet’s dialogue. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the execution, “Heist” is a film worth seeing solely for exchanges like this:
He ain’t gonna shoot me?
Then he hadn’t ought to point a gun at me. It’s insincere.
Too bad the film suffers from the same problem.