I Dunnit--Me, Mamet, I'm To Blame, Indeed
As if not to bury the lead, David Mamet delivered the quintessential image of his cinematic corpus in the first scene of his directorial debut, House of Games. I refer to the gun that starts leaking water, thus absurdly exposing a con--and beginning a new one. That's Mamet's deal, right? Duplicity. The Trojan horse--that was his. Before Mamet's script doctoring, the Wizard of Oz was bona fide, though I understand the Baum estate rejected Mamet's proposal to have the Wizard be a stooge for a grayer gray eminence, and the censors killed the original closing line: "So what, I pulled a few strings and yanked a few chains. I'm no worse than you fuckface losers, letting some bumpkin cunt in pigtails dope you up with poppies and lead you on the piss-colored road to nowhere."
So during Spartan, Mamet's new political thriller, one might wish for the film's depressing mediocrity to be relieved by a Mametian peripeteia, for the camera to back up and reveal a soundstage, letting us know that this isn't a witless, ineptly acted bill payer, but a dramatization of one. Soon the real movie will begin.
But that never happens. Spartan's letdown never lets up. In his past (and recent, if one sticks to his stage work) triumphs and near-triumphs, Mamet's dialogue has been both fantastically, retrogressively unreal and keenly attuned to the patois of everyday working- and middle-class speech--the poetry of profanity, the beauty of bullshit. (And he's no less sure-handed at writing b.s. for the preternaturally clever and erudite, as demonstrated by his play Boston Marriage, which was mounted recently at the Guthrie Lab.) Here, signs of Mamet's knack for salty man-speak are so scarce that I wrote down the following line as a potential highlight: "If I want camaraderie, I'll join the Masons."
That's what lone-wolf men in green like Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) say when they don't want to go bowling or make out behind the barracks. Scott is a jack-of-all-trades military man who works with a creepy special-operations force. When Harvard's most famous undergraduate, Laura Newton (Kristen Bell), disappears, Scott is recruited to find her before the press notices her absence. The kidnappee's identity is withheld for much of the picture, so, in keeping with Mamet's not-especially-crafty secret-keeping, let's just say that she's the daughter of a Beltway bigwig whose post was once filled by such great men as Franklin Pierce and Warren Harding.
Laura may have been abducted into a white-slavery ring that leads Scott first to a grimy bar where johns go in search of underage prostitutes, then to a grimier no-tell motel, and finally to the heart of darkness in Dubai. In the classic tradition of hard-boiled heroes, Scott claims to do his sleuthing and ass-kicking strictly for duty and bread. He's just a "worker bee," and when it seems that the feds have satisfactorily if fishily wrapped up the case, he's ready for Miller time. But underneath the fuzzy thorax of every worker bee is a gentleman-soldier, and after some melodramatic pleas, Scott is down for maverick heroics.
And what do we say about Val Kilmer? I'm reminded of the classic bit of philistine criticism, which is to stand before a piece of abstract art and harrumph, "Shit, I coulda done that." The best response to such inanity is always, "Well, why didn't you then?" But seriously, one wonders if any good-looking and fit man over 30 couldn't have performed more capably than Kilmer does here. This is handsome-man acting of the direst variety--emotionally blank, not even blankly charismatic. The tiny scar that has been applied to Kilmer's face is the deepest thing about the performance.
Late in the picture, Laura, traumatized from her ordeal, moans, "I'm just a little whore." Mamet, of course, is notorious for the pleasure he seems to take in sentiments like this, even when he's "critiquing" them. And though this bit of implausible pornography is one of the movie's many clunker lines, it might also be its most revelatory. Mamet, the often-brilliant artist whose forays into Hollywood harlotry have rarely been this plodding, might in fact be issuing a confession.
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