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.