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Botched Job

David Mamet plots and schemes, then blows his own Heist

After venting his spleen in theater and film for a quarter-century, it seems like David Mamet would be ready to divulge something human about humanity. Sure, his fervid fans may point to his Pulitzer and leap about singing hosannas to frothing hucksters and sexual miscreants, but after all the cock-a-doodle-doo, what remains?

In the case of Heist, not much. Last year's State and Main was nothing if not a showbiz paean to statutory rape, and now Mamet has moved on to the groundbreaking thesis that mean old farts deserve rich compensation for their treachery. Whee. With a movie like this, there's no risk of spoiling the ending, because the entire plot is merely a formality trudging toward a foregone conclusion. The viewer's biggest challenge is to survive fits of yawning so violent they could disrupt ornithic migratory patterns.

Speaking of which, Hollywood must be following northbound geese when it comes to making movies about charming thugs, as Heist -- like The Whole Nine Yards and the incredibly similar The Score -- is staged in Montreal. Unlike those spotty efforts, however, this production pretends, to its peril, that it's set in some alternate dimension that's half Starsky and Hutch and half Grumpy Old Men, with Gene Hackman's archaic swagger stranding us in the funky '70s in more ways than one.

Hackman plays a sharp-witted thief named Joe Moore who foolishly allows himself to be caught on video during Heist's opening heist, so he decides to cut his losses, quit the game and sail his handmade boat to paradise with his cunning young wife, Fran (Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon). Naturally, this news proves somewhat upsetting to Moore's chums in crime, the smooth Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) and the rumpled Don "Pinky" Pincus (Mamet regular Ricky Jay). Even more disturbed is Moore's fence, Bergman (Danny DeVito), who refuses to distribute the spoils unless Moore agrees -- oh, God, is it really…yes, it is -- to do one last job before retiring.

Bergman, who seems to spend the entire movie telling fuckers to fucking fuck themselves, is not messing around, and he sends his arrogant nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), to keep tabs on Moore, lest the snippy codger try any funny business. In turn, Moore deploys Fran to monitor Silk's moves, which include stripping her, bedding her and generally stealing her from her husband. This leads to one of the movie's few intentional giggles, when Bergman asks Moore, "As rational men, don't we have to doubt her?"

Aside from that, Mamet's dialogue is so stilted and inorganic that his characters seem to be wearing earplugs and reading from faded bumper stickers. In between rote double-crosses and occasional bludgeonings, there's all manner of nonsense about kissing this or that Yankee ass or talking one's way out of a sunburn, with the crooks' exchanges of props and slams falling ludicrously flat. Sorting out his master plan, Moore explains, "I try to imagine a fella smarter than myself, and then I try to think, 'What would he do?' " Well, for starters, he'd pick a script that didn't suck.

Mamet seems to be under the impression that he's directing a noir thriller, even though there's a painful lack of intrigue and all the frames look like average television. He's gone on record that noir films, unlike their gangster cousins, depict violence without emotion, which is a neat theory but still doesn't put him on the same planet as Chandler or Hammett. Besides, if all you want is a few smiles watching ornery guys stealing stuff, you'd be better off hitting the video shelves for The Brink's Job or, especially, the newly restored Rififi.

As the heavy, DeVito is about as threatening as Charlotte Church, and Rockwell -- truly creepy in The Green Mile -- prompts more annoyance than tension. Jay gets to dawdle with a distracted child actor, and Lindo gets to play stingy with his lifetime of collected wisdom, but everyone feels disconnected. Our lead himself comes alive only in spasms of brutality, as when a young security guard mocks his gun, asking, "Who you kiddin' with that little thing?" Hackman enthusiastically beats him as if he's heard the question too many times before.

Last, the robbery itself is just silly, involving countless millions in gold ingots nabbed from a jet en route to Switzerland. Although Mamet clearly savors his Swiss-bashing -- displaying an odd loathing for cuckoo clocks -- the logistics of the crime are implausible and feel like a chore. Ultimately, Heist is only about mean old Moore claiming the gold, melting it into huge bars and carting it away, presumably to build himself a gilded cage.

 
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