Mamet is primarily a prolific screenwriter who has written for many movies he didn’t direct, such as The Edge, Glengarry Glen Ross (which won a Pulitzer), The Untouchables, and Wag the Dog. As a director, his movies are less well-known. I think it’s fair to say his directing ability is limited, but it seems like he does what he knows the best he can. Many of his movies, unfortunately, start to feel the same. He uses many of the same cast repeatedly (Joe Montegna, William H. Macy, his two wives, his half-brother) and his movies often feel like stage-plays on screen when he’s directing them. No doubt part of that reason is that his scripts are dialogue-heavy and there is significant focus on the lines and the actor’s faces. That’s not to say that other directors always improve upon his scripts, but I get the feeling Mamet is not very comfortable with music and spectacle, at least from a cinematic standpoint.
That said his dialogue is always fun. Mamet-Speak involves characters using well-enunciated and emphasized dialogue to manipulate one another, while frequently interrupting. I imagine it’s a blast for actors.
Spartan: The plot of Spartan reads like a Robert Ludlum novel. A U.S. secret agent (Val Kilmer) is assigned to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a government official, but lo and behold, not everyone wants him to succeed in his task. The least memorable of the Mamet movies I’ve seen. Kilmer doesn’t help things much, but the script left me cold. A suspense thriller isn’t as thrilling when one doesn’t care about the characters, and there was no one to root for (or against) here.
Homicide: A policeman is assigned to a murder case not even the FBI can crack but is redirected to another murder case of a Jewish lady. Not surprisingly a Jewish hate group is behind both murders. The plot is not memorable, but the performance of Joe Mantegna most certainly is. The sets are also chilling and the movie is well shot. I probably don’t see myself watching it again, but if you like Mantegna, it’s worth a once-over.
House of Games: A psychiatrist (with not even the lightest grasp of professional boundaries) agrees to help a patient get out of gambling debt. She succeeds by excelling at a poker game with the people who want to destroy her patient. She then gets recruited for assignments where she utilizes her “skill” to earn more money for the boss, as well as his love, she hopes. The plot is ridiculous, but it’s cleverly written and has some classic Mamet speeches. Mantegna is superb here as well, and Mamet gets a decent performance out of his wife, Lindsay Crouse, who has done made-for-TV movies almost exclusively.
State and Main: The only comedy on this list, David Mamet ventures into black humor and screwball hijinx with this romp about a big-budget movie crew out of a place in a small New England town. The director (William H. Macy) is a smooth talker who can get his actors to agree to anything, the screenwriter breaks his moral code to get things done, and the actors are pretty much all high maintenance. While the movie is a bit meandering, it has some true laugh-out-loud moments and a lot of grin-worthy ones, with some solid bit parts by Alec Baldwin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Malloy. My favorite part is Macy constantly placating his disgruntled crew by offering them executive producer credits!
The Spanish Prisoner: The plot is mostly irrelevant here. All you need to know is this movie is one elaborate, twisting, confidence game with so many plot twists it’ll make your head spin. Mamet does an excellent job at making it all believable. Even better, he gets an exceptional performance out of Steve Martin, making me wish he’d stop doing comedies forever. Ben Gazzara and Campbell Scott are also good. His wife is just kind of there, but she doesn’t ruin any scenes she’s in.
Other David Mamet Movies You May Have Seen
The Winslow Boy