When it comes to filmmaking, David Mamet is as hard to figure as the conflicted characters he writes about. In his screenplays that are remakes of earlier movies, he ignores his own voice -- a voice so distinctive that it's won him a Pulitzer Prize for drama -- and instead is faithful to his source. This strategy worked in his intense, seamy version of The Postman Always Rings Twice but failed in the strained, unfunny We're No Angels. When it comes to original screenplays Mamet at times chooses not to sound like Mamet, an approach that made The Untouchables stirring but left Hoffa flat. And then at times Mamet is unabashedly himself. But even when he uses his theatrical gifts to write -- and direct -- screenplays rich with lyrical scams, you can't be sure if you'll get the intricate House of Games or the overloaded Homicide.
Mamet's mixed bag continues in the recently released Oleanna and Vanya on 42nd Street, which is scheduled for release in late December. Oleanna is Mamet's adaptation of his 1992 off-Broadway cause celebre about sexual harassment. But despite Mamet's singular linguistic talents, since his oeuvre places him somewhere between being a man's man and a misogynist, there's little conflict in Oleanna as to who's mainly at fault. Oleanna is tendentious and simplistic; Mamet is no Chekhov here. How surprising, then, that Vanya on 42nd Street, Mamet's adaptation of the Russian playwright's imposing Uncle Vanya, so sublimely elicits the complexities of people frustrated by more than interpersonal relations. Delicate, soulful and profound, Vanya on 42nd Street is one of the year's best movies.
Oleanna lacks any such grace. It focuses on three extended meetings between John (William H. Macy), a well-meaning if egoistic education professor, and Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), a confused student failing his course. "I don't understand," she laments at their first session. "I sit in class. I take notes. I'm doing what I'm told." As the one in power, John is understanding, firm and somewhat impatient. She says she feels stupid; he tells he was once so insecure that he believed a story about how "the rich copulate less often than the poor, but when they do, they take more clothes off."
At their second encounter, it's the pedant who doesn't understand. Carol has filed a complaint with the university's tenure committee that charges John with (among other things) telling her a sexist, pornographic story. "What have I done to you and how can I make amends?" John asks. Carol interprets this as a bribe for retraction; her "group" warned her about such. By the third meeting, Carol has the air of authority John once sported; he looks as undone as she once did. She has now accused him of trying to rape her.
The problem with Oleanna is that we know this charge, along with most of the others, is false. Carol is infuriating because, as Mamet writes her, she's either seriously self-deluded or downright Machiavellian; there are no other possibilities. So we can generate no sympathy for her. The crux of the sexual harassment debate comes when one party asserts that a situation is devoid of sexual intent while the other claims the exact opposite. But here nothing is ambiguous. Mamet further muddles things at the end by having John -- who is at worst injudicious and patriarchal -- explode in a way that substantiates Carol's assessment, even though we've seen that her assessment is unfounded. The finale makes an unconvincing attempt to even up the scales when the weights have by all appearances already been measured.
As director, instead of limiting the action to John's office, as was the case in the play, Mamet decided to open things up by including brief scenes of the professor and the student walking down corridors and going about their individual routines. But by doing so, Mamet negates one of Oleanna-the-play's strengths: its claustrophobic intimacy. The innumerable close-ups that are meant as compensation are overexploited, as are the shots meant to be filled with portent. Frequently the film is so shadowy that you can't see the characters' eyes; meant to be suggestive, this is instead distracting. Though Oleanna is filled with the rhythmical staccato language and suggestive repetitions that have earned Mamet acclaim, and though Macy, recreating his stage role, is outstandingly nuanced, Oleanna is, finally ... umm... a bitch.
"I am not interested in your feelings or motivations. I'm interested in your actions," Carol says at one point in Oleanna, turning one of John's lessons on its head. The exact inverse applies to Vanya on 42nd Street, for Chekhov's famous characters suffer spiritual malaise from not being able to act. Mamet's respectful, fluid adaptation of Chekhov's story revolves around beautiful Yelena (Julianne Moore) and the people she affects: Serybryakov (George Gaynes), her aged, blowhard husband; Astrov (Larry Pine), a rakish, worldly country doctor who falls in love with her; Vanya (Wallace Shawn), her jaded brother-in-law who also desires her; and plain Sonya (Brooke Smith), her grown stepdaughter, who has an unrequited love for Astrov.
Though they can rouse feelings about each other and their pasts, that's all they can rouse; despairing about how boring and unfulfilled their lives are, they rot away, refined submissives suffering from ontological laziness.
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Where Oleanna suffers from too much Mamet, Vanya on 42nd Street glories in shared artistic responsibilities. Filmed by Louis Malle as a play rehearsal, the production dates back to 1989, when Andre Gregory directed the cast for small, private audiences. What this means is that Vanya retains the understated artistry of an earlier Malle-Gregory-Shawn collaboration, My Dinner With Andre, even though here Gregory, as stage director, has little to do on-screen except watch, rapturously and proudly, the terrific acting he's prompted, most notably Moore's radiant yet languid Yelena, Pine's enlightened yet unheeding Astrov and Smith's noble yet heartbreaking Sonya. After years of honing their parts, these actors don't even need costumes, performing instead in street clothes, with barely a prop.
Set in New York's rundown New Amsterdam Theater in such a remarkable way that the building's natural dilapidation comes to suggest an eroding Russian country estate, Vanya is beautifully filmed, with shots that make Moore's red hair seem uncommonly luminous and darkened corners that somehow reveal vast expanses of soul. Vanya is as rarefied as Oleanna is heavy-handed. Stripped of everything except the essence of feeling through unadorned language, Vanya makes Oleanna's war of words seem like artificial maneuvers.
What we see in Vanya is said to be a rehearsal (this is one of the film's few false notes), but it's Oleanna that needs work; in the former it might take a few minutes for us to get our bearings, but in the latter we never get situated. In Vanya, the participants arrive at the theater speaking a small talk that evolves effortlessly into updated Chekhov; in Oleanna, Mamet can't get beyond Mamet. How strange that one film, paced with immediacy, rivets, while the other, lumbering under thematics, repulses, for both reflect Yelena's ironic credo: "I think the truth, no matter how bad, is always better than an uncertainty." Or as John ironically observes, "We can only interpret the behavior of others through the screens we create."
Directed by David Mamet.