Week 41 – Rhode Island
American Buffalo (1996), produced by Capital Films, Channel Four Films, Prairie Oyster Productions, Punch Productions and The Samuel Goldwyn Company, directed by Michael Corrente, written by David Mamet, with Dennis Franz, Dustin Hoffman and Sean Nelson, cinematography by Richard Crudo, original music by Thomas Newman
The following column may contain language of a frank and explicit nature. Reader discretion is advised.
So, I’m watchin’ this fuckin’ movie, right – American Buffalo or whatever. It’s got that guy who flashed his junk on that cop show back in the 90s. It’s also got that fuckin’ Rain Man guy. Hoffman, I think it is. That guy from The Graduate. Anyhow, I’m watchin’ this fuckin’ movie and it suddenly hit me that the characters and the things they were sayin’ reminded me of another movie I saw. The one with “Cool Hand Luke” and that British broad, where he’s a lawyer –
I think it was called The Verdict or something. So, I’m thinking to myself, “These are some real unlikeable pricks. It’s gotta take balls to make a movie – or a play … I think it was a play first – that revolves around a buncha dickheads, since the average Joe’s gonna be like, ‘Why do I care about these unlikeable pricks? Change it to the Knicks game – fuck!’”
Later, when the movie’s over, I’m on the computer and I realize that the guy who wrote American Buffalo is the guy who writes the plays with all the fuckin’ cursin’ in them … Mamet. Well, it turns out that Mamet also wrote the screenplay to The Verdict, so when I noticed all the similarities in the dialogue and the way the characters were drawn out, it wasn’t a coincidence or my brain playin’ tricks on me because – seriously – I need to get some sleep but I can’t because my fuckin’ neighbors are blastin’ their fuckin’ rap music until the crack of dawn. TURN IT DOWN!
And … scene.
True story. I had forgotten that Mamet did the screenplay to The Verdict until after I had finished watching American Buffalo, which is based on his 1975 play. Both films are full of what is commonly known as “Mamet-speak.”All those naughty words in the preceding paragraph – the italicizing and bold-faced type? It wasn’t just the Jersey boy in me rearing its ugly head. It was an exercise in Mamet-speak. What is Mamet-speak?
The short version: first, you can expect talking … a lot of it. Within that dialogue, you can expect people talking over top each other, interrupting each other, long arguments over semantics and – oh yeah — cursing. Lots and lots of cursing – or cussing, if that’s how you prefer it to be called. In his prime, Mamet took bad language and created from it an art form the likes of which would not be matched until 1983, when a remake of a Howard Hawks movie from the 1930s about a drug kingpin starring Al Pacino raised the profanity bar to heights the likes of which still have yet to be matched. For the most famous example of Mamet-speak, check out 1992’s Glengarry Glenn Ross, based in Mamet’s award-winning play, starring Al Pacino and a whole slew of amazing actors. Coincidentally, Pacino – who also starred in the aforementioned profanity-laced 1983 gangster movie – played one of the leads in an early 1980s on-stage revival of American Buffalo.
But, anyway, back to Buffalo.
American Buffalo takes place in the mid-1990s in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Pawtucket was not a very nice place, as it apparently is today – the last 10 years have been a renaissance for Pawtucket and now it’s considered Rhode Island’s cultural center. In 1995 or 1996 – when ever American Buffalo takes place — Pawtucket was cursed with high unemployment, high crime, low expectations and low aspirations.
The story revolves around four men, including the owner of a pawn or junk shop, scheming to steal a collection of coins – including a valuable Buffalo nickel – from a coin dealer who had come into the pawn shop and bought the nickel for far less than what it was worth. Pretty much the entirety of the film takes place at the junk shop – remember that this was originally a play.
For Don “Donny” Dubrow, played by Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue), retrieving the coin is a matter of principle as Donny feels he’s been ripped off. Unlike two of the other men, Walt “Teach” Teacher (Dustin Hoffman) and Bobby (Sean Nelson), Franz seems less concerned about what other valuables can be retrieved from the coin dealers home. Teach implores Donny to take the inexperienced Bobby off the job. Donny relents and gives Bobby some payment to “forget about the heist” and go home. Donny, however, doesn’t trust the somewhat erratic and unpredictable Teach to do the job himself, so he calls for some added assistance in the form of a fourth man, Fletcher. As Teach and Donny argue about how the heist is going to go down and wait for Fletcher to show up, Bobby returns to the junk shop. He has with him a Buffalo nickel similar to the one that Donny sold to the coin dealer and wants some money for it. Teach is suspicious and wonders if they’ve been double-crossed, but Donny – trusting of his young protege — doesn’t ask where the nickel came from and pays Bobby, who leaves for a second time.
Bobby shows up a third time. This time, he’s got news that Fletcher has been mugged by “a couple of spics.”
Okay, now things are really getting weird.
What’s the real story as to what’s going on here? Where’s Fletcher? Is Bobby telling stories? Just where did he get that Buffalo nickel from?
I won’t ruin the ending … well, I’ll try not to. I will tell you not to get your hopes up for some killer payoff, because American Buffalo isn’t that kind of movie. I imagine though, if you’ve watched this far into the movie and not just read my recap, that you’ve figured this out. While there is closure to the film – and not just some bogus sudden cut-to-black – American Buffalo is more about the journey, then the destination.
This is what’s most problematic about the movie. These are some very unlikeable characters. Many will find it hard to stick with them long enough to pull out something about them that they find redeemable. But there are redeemable qualities. You just have to be paying attention – close attention. You have to read between the lines – the many, many lines. Because somewhere between the “fucks” and the “cunts”, these are real people. You probably know people like them or, at the very least, allow them to change the oil and rotate the tires on your car every couple of months.
It helps to have great actors like Franz and Hoffman playing the roles, as it’s the casting that probably makes or breaks this movie/play. A recent revival of American Buffalo in New York with John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osmond got terrible reviews because the humanity wasn’t there. It was just actors reading lines – as poetic and beautifully vulgar as those lines are. Hoffman, Franz and Sean Nelson (who plays Bobby) have the ability to bring the characters to life. If you’re a fan of any of these actors, check this out.
All others might want to approach this with caution.
There’s not much I can say about the Corrente’s directing. It’s basically a play on film. As for the cinematography: it’s dark. As for the music: it’s sparse.
Other movies filmed in Rhode Island: The Farrelly Brothers are from Rhode Island. Most of their movies take place and/or are filmed there, including There’s Something About Mary. Whatever happened to those guys? Things kind of went downhill for them fast. Weren’t they supposed to be directing a Three Stooges movie at one point? I digress. Some of 1999’s Outside Providence, produced by the Farrelly Bros and directed by Corrente also takes place in Pawtucket. There’s also 1974’s The Great Gatsby, which takes place in New York but was filmed in Rhode Island.
Next week: Kevin Costner in a coffin!