Thursday, August 05, 2004

Review: "Oleanna" (1994)

There are some screenwriters in Hollywood who have made their career out of being distinctive from everyone else. I don't mean unique subject matter, necessarily, but the way characters talk. Quentin Tarantino is said to have started the trend of characters talking incessantly about pop culture, though his imitators are so numerous so that it's no longer his individual trademark. One screenwriter whose scripts will never be mistaken for anyone else's is David Mamet.

"Oleanna" was the fourth film Mamet wrote and directed. It was originally a stage play concerning just two characters: A college professor named John (William H. Macy) and his student named Carol (Debra Eisenstadt). In the midst of purchasing a house, John has several long conversations with Carol in his office. The conversations specifically concern a grade she received, but it is also about his teaching methods and his character in general. Through some ill-chosen words that John says, Carol becomes convinced that John made a pass at her, and she lodges a complaint against him. For John, it only gets worse from there.

When I first starting hearing about Mamet, the biggest comment I heard was that his dialogue was very natural sounding. Folks, this is a load of crap. Don't get me wrong, I like most of what I've seen of Mamet and the dialogue is often great. But natural? No. It has a rhythm that is almost musical when spoken by the right actors, but it's not like any conversation I've heard. One particular trait to Mamet's scripts is the focus on a particular item by the characters. The name of the item is often repeated ad nauseum so that the word is ringing in your head after its all over (i.e. In "Glengarry Glen Ross" it's "The Leads", In "Heist" it's "The Gold"). There really is no such item in "Oleanna", but the dialogue is still pure Mamet.

The biggest problem here is Eisenstadt. According to the IMDb, the role was originally played on stage by Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon. Having seen her in action in other Mamet films, I think she would have done a much better job. As it is, Eisenstadt is completely wooden for the entirety of the play. She speaks lines without any motivation and comes across as quite dense. At first I thought this might be because she is playing a young girl in college who is still awkward and naive. In the second half of the film, the character goes through a change by obtaining confidence and strength, yet her delivery of the dialogue is unchanging.

From what I've read of the stage play, the major reactions from audiences can be divided along gender lines. The play is commentary on sexual harassment and political correctness. For that perspective, I think the play is interesting. But, once again, I also think Eisenstadt's performance sinks it. I can summon up no sympathy for the character, and this is not because I'm male. I think Macy's character is a bit of a shmuck himself, but at least he's convincing. Eisenstadt sounds as if she's playing a tooth in the school play about gum disease.

Because even bad Mamet is pretty good, I recommend this for his fans. For all others, do yourself a favor and rent Glengary Glen Ross (with the provision that you're not offended by constant swearing). It's a great Mamet script that is performed by such greats as Jack Lemon, Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey. Now those are some guys who can deliver dialogue.

Five out of Ten

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