You all know my opinion on movies by now; that is, can there be such a thing as a movie which is too intelligent? Nope. But it can try way too hard to seem intelligent. That’s the case with The Spanish Prisoner. Written and directed by David Mamet, The Spanish Prisoner has many of the hallmarks of great films: intelligent plot, fascinating twists and turns, smart dialog, and an interesting atmosphere or mood. I like this film a lot, but I can’t call it a great film because Mamet tries too hard to prove he’s clever—which we already knew.
Mamet is probably one of the most prolific and famed playwrights of our time. However, I recently read in the Guardian that Mamet’s last 6 plays have been serious box office flops—one was even announced closed after the first day it opened having only 17 professional performances. Read the article here http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2013/jun/12/david-mamet-lost-the-plot. I think the problem is, and I’ve said this before in our review of Gengarry Glenross, that Mamet has one underlying theme and most of his work is a variation on that theme. Simply put, that people are selfish jerks and would step over their own mother for a dollar. The Spanish Prisoner is no exception only it is much more complicated and elaborate than his big three “Oleanna” “American Buffalo” and of course “Glengarry Glenross.”
Campbell Scott (son of George C. Scott) and also a graduate of my alma-mater (where he was a visiting professor when I attended university) is the victim of a truly intricate con known as the Spanish Prisoner. “The Spanish Prisoner” is a con game that dates back to the 19th century. Typically, the con man informs a victim of a wealthy man held prisoner in Spain. The con man then convinces the victim to put up funds to rescue the wealthy man in exchange for a larger sum of money once the prisoner is released, as well as obtaining the hand of a young, beautiful woman, typically the wealthy man’s daughter. The con game ends once the victim has been cleaned or realizes that he has been duped from the beginning.
Steve Martin plays Jimmy Dell. Now, in truth, Martin is brilliant. Prior to this film, I viewed him as a an actor who could only play the “put-upon guy.” Yet here he plays a suave and brilliant businessman, and he does it incredibly well. In The Spanish Prisoner, Martin takes over the screen with his performance.
The title is a direct reference to the specific con game, an updated version of which Joseph A. ‘Joe’ Ross (Campbell Scott) suddenly finds himself caught in. A small clog in the machinery of a large firm, he invents an unnamed and un-shown “Process” which is guaranteed to make untold masses of money for the company he works for. On a business trip to the Caribbean, he meets millionaire Julian ‘Jimmy’ Dell (Steve Martin) and is befriended by an even lowlier coworker, the secretary Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), who obviously has a thing for him. Back home, he slowly begins to feel that his boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) is out to screw him, but before he can protect his interests, he not only finds out that it is actually Jimmy who is out to screw him but actually gets the screw job. A twist and a turn and a twist and a turn and a double and triple twist and turn later, Ross is not only bereft of The Process but is also seemingly framed for the murder of his buddy George Lang (Ricky Jay). Everything everywhere points to Ross, while Jimmy is nowhere to be found. With the help of Susan, he sets out to prove his innocence, but the film still has a good dozen twists to go before the last line of smart dialogue is crisply delivered. In the end it turns out not only was it his employer who was behind the scheme but that the U.S. Marshalls (disguised as Japanese tourists) were watching the whole time thereby wrapping up this incredibly complex artifice in a few minutes.
The truly horrible thing about this film is Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pigeon, who plays a mere secretary at Joe’s firm. Apparently she has had a role in every one of Mamet’s plays since their marriage in 1991. That is not a good thing. Listening to her in this film is like nails scratching on a chalkboard. She tries to come off as the quirky cute temptress but instead bogs down the film with her annoying dialog, speech patterns and voice inflections. I mean it is hard to put up with. Putting that to one side, it’s a tricky plot, and Mamet never lets his audience forget just how tricky it is, just as he never lets anyone forget that he’s a writer, or maybe preferably a Writer. And boy can he write. One gets the sense, listening to his dialogue, which he just loves to write, that he loves the sound of his own words that he loves the wordplay and clever twisting of familiar quotes and clichés to new purposes. One does not get the sense that he has ever actually heard the way real people talk, or that he has any feel for (or interest in) writing in such a way that actors can actually deliver his lines without coming across as stilted and inhuman. Maybe he doesn’t care, maybe he’s quite content creating this stylized Mamet world where these humanoid figures sort of look and sometimes act like people, but speak as though they learned about human interactions by studying high school productions of Shakespeare. There’s stylized dialogue that works (His Girl Friday, still the model for artificial but infectious patter), and then there’s stylized dialogue that merely calls attention to its own stylization without compensating for it by being, you know, clever or fun or intelligent. Maybe you can guess which category this falls into: “Money, it depresses everyone but what did it ever do for one?”
Let me stress that you should not read this review as a condemnation. I like this film and I recommend it. But I feel the film artificially limits my ability to love it because of these entirely avoidable flaws. Had Mamet stopped telling me how intelligent he is (which we already knew), then this could have been a great movie. As it is, it’s a good movie which wasted its potential to become a great movie.