Archive for September 13, 1996

Feeling Minnesota

September 13, 1996

The gray landscapes, the twangy country music on the soundtrack, the fashionably rumpled and unshaven Keanu Reeves squinting and pouting (somewhere between contemplative and constipated) …. For a while, I thought I was watching My Own Private Idaho, especially during the credits, when exotic dancers in framed portraits come to life (a swipe from the much wittier gay-porn gag in Idaho). But this isn’t Idaho, it’s Minnesota — Feeling Minnesota, to be exact. Or, to be more exact, Unfeeling Minnesota. (The title, incidentally, is from Soundgarden’s “Outshined,” which is heard in True Romance: “I’m looking California/And feeling Minnesota.” Whatever that might mean.) The movie is one of those calculatedly hip and quirky Gen-X marketing decisions, far too cool to engage our emotions and too inept to engage anything else. Everyone on the screen is stupid and passive — passive even when they’re aggressive — and the attempts at whimsy crash down like dead trees.

Reeves is the semi-hero, a compulsive thief named Jjaks, whose name is the result of a birth-certificate error. Since I don’t have the stomach to type “Jjaks” repeatedly, I will rename him Typo. Typo drifts back into his hometown to attend the wedding of his loutish brother Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose unwilling new bride Freddie (Cameron Diaz) falls in love with Typo at first sight. Taking pity on Freddie, who’s been forced by local bad guy Red (Delroy Lindo) to marry Sam, Typo whisks her away along with some of Sam’s money. Thus begins a kind of Punch-and-Judy show between the brothers, who pound each other every time their paths cross. The one good thing I can say about first-time writer-director Steven Baigelman is that he stages the Typo-Sam fights naturalistically, with authentic clumsiness. But the rest of Baigelman’s direction is just as klutzy.

Feeling Minnesota is one bad screenwriting decision after another; it could be taught in film school as an example of what to avoid. For instance, avoid scenes that go nowhere, such as the one set at a gas station. Sam follows Typo to this station and promptly locks himself out of his car. So he steals a truck hitched to a trailer carrying a show horse. What comes of this? Nothing, except a guest appearance by Courtney Love as a waitress who asks Sam, “Is that your horse?”

Courtney’s actually one of the few reasons I didn’t hit the aisle; Baigelman gives her nothing to do, but she seems to relish the irony of playing perhaps the sanest character in the movie. I also liked Cameron Diaz, except that Baigelman keeps her offscreen too long near the end (and keeps us in suspense about whether she’s dead). The two leads surprised me more. D’Onofrio, a decent character performer, overacts in every scene. I found it hard to look at him. Reeves, not exactly Olivier, is halfway likable as the confused Typo. After a while, I began to feel that Reeves’ confusion was real — that he couldn’t quite figure out what Feeling Minnesota was supposed to be or where he fit into it. I could certainly relate.

American Buffalo

September 13, 1996

There’s an interesting ongoing pun in American Buffalo that I wonder if its author, David Mamet, intended. One of the three characters, the burned-out weasel Teach (Dustin Hoffman), keeps ranting about two local lesbians, Grace and Ruthie. These women never appear on screen, but they’re never far from Teach’s mind: Grace and Ruthie this, Grace and Ruthie that. By the end of the movie, we’ve learned something about Teach: the man is graceless and ruthless.

American Buffalo itself may be ruthless — an unblinking study of trust among bottom dogs — but graceless it isn’t. The play was David Mamet’s Broadway debut, introducing many audiences to a new species of rhetoric. Men sit and vent about women, food, the weather, anything. It’s the sound of self-defeating machismo sputtering out in spasms of profanity. Without the precedent set by Mamet (and also Elmore Leonard), Quentin Tarantino would still be reminding people to rewind.

The “story” is really a story waiting to happen. We meet the bedraggled junk-shop owner Donny Dubrow (Dennis Franz), who’s sore about selling a buffalo-head nickel for much less than he figures it’s worth. Donny decides to break into the buyer’s house, stealing back the nickel along with anything else that might be valuable. His shabby friend Teach wants in on the “shot” and can’t understand why Donny wants to include his younger gofer Bob (Sean Nelson), possibly a heroin addict. The men go back and forth; American Buffalo is the clash of two philosophies — Donny’s “Things are not always what they seem to be” versus Teach’s “Things are what they are.” Hoffman tears into Teach’s paranoid tirades like a bull mastiff, while Franz quietly positions himself as the voice of reason. The drama becomes a head-butting contest that nobody wins.

This is director Michael Corrente’s follow-up to his acclaimed 1994 debut Federal Hill, a good, solid movie that nevertheless owed a little too much to Mean Streets (and the rest of the Scorsese portfolio). Like many young male directors, Corrente loves the verbal shrapnel of street guys, the repetitive obscenities and homophobic taunts, and American Buffalo has enough of it for five movies. Mesmerized by the trademark Mamet gutter poetry, Corrente directs unobtrusively and respectfully.

Maybe too respectfully. At times, American Buffalo seems like a punk rewrite of Waiting for Godot, and the staginess of the material shows despite Corrente’s sporadic attempts to “open it out” — putting Donny and Teach on the sidewalk, mostly, as if they were dogs needing to pee. At least Glengarry Glen Ross, another film based on a Mamet play, had two basic sets; this movie has only a shop, and as much as I enjoyed the talk and the performances, I can’t say I was sorry to leave the shop. What works on stage doesn’t always play well on screen.

Still, I’m reminded of Pauline Kael’s review of The Trojan Women, a 1972 adaptation of Euripides. Kael said it wasn’t great filmmaking, but it was a welcome chance to see the great play performed by great actresses. American Buffalo gives us the great Mamet words spoken by great actors. That’s enough.