Friday, August 24, 2007

House of Games: The Criterion Collection


I´m not going to scam you: I can´t stand "House of Games." I know it is a cult favorite, and finds a place both on Roger Ebert´s Great Movies list and in Jonathan Rosenbaum´s "Essential Cinema" canon, not to mention just about every book titled "101 Movies You Have To See Before You Die" or anything remotely similar. Nonetheless, I first watched it on VHS many years ago, and even after a second viewing on this excellent DVD release from Criterion, I still find it nearly unbearable.

There are several hurdles to clear before one can appreciate David Mamet´s directorial debut, chief among them being the acting style. It´s tempting to describe the acting as "theatrical" since Mamet had already earned his coin on the stage before jumping behind the camera (he had also previously written screenplays for "The Verdict" and the 1981 remake of "The Postman Rings Twice.") But that description doesn´t do justice to the bewildering performances in this film. As in most of Mamet´s films, all of the characters speak in the same voice, pouncing on each other´s lines and repeating the same phrases over and over.

But in "House of Games," more so than in any other Mamet film, the characters speak in dull, flat tones, as if they are reading lines off a cue card just off camera; the readings are so stiff and stilted one sometimes wonders if they are foreign speakers being asked to phoneticize English words. Lead actress Lindsay Crouse (as Dr. Maggie Ford, champion psychiatrist and sucker-in-the-making) is so robotic, I´d be willing to wager that Jeri Ryan used her as a model when crafting the role of Seven of Nine. This isn´t a mistake, of course, but rather a stylistic choice on Mamet´s part, and if you can accept or even acclimatize to these idiosyncratic performances, you are much more likely to enjoy the film. I was never able to make that leap.

Another hurdle is the film´s Byzantine plot, concerning the machinations of a group of con men trying to make a fast buck at the expense of several other characters, Dr. Maggie Ford among them. Any detailed plot summation will spoil the film, so I will summarize briefly. In order to save one of her patients from a debt, Dr. Ford wanders into a nightclub where a group of con men operate; the strait-laced psychiatrist and best-selling author quickly becomes enamored of life on the wild side, and falls hard for the ring leader Mike (Joe Mantegna.) She becomes a vicarious participant in a series of scams, ostensibly acting as an objective reporter gathering material for her next book, but secretly getting her kicks from being a naughty, naughty girl.

In an early scene, Joe (Mike Nussbaum) demonstrates a classic bread and butter con known as "the Flue" which involves scamming a helpless clerk and pawning a twenty. The scam is brilliant in it simplicity, but the film´s big con (which I won´t spoil here) is anything but simple, requiring an extraordinary amount of time to unfold, and relying on perfect timing, a series of coincidences, and the ability to perfectly predict precisely how another person will react in a certain situation. The film´s fans believe the big con to be clever as hell, but I found it totally unconvincing precisely because it´s too damned clever for its own good. Surely the con man operates by the K.I.S.S. principle, and would never design something so elaborate it is doomed to collapse under its own weight. Mamet falls in love with the idea of repeatedly pulling the rug out from under the audience, an approach to story-telling which I have never enjoyed, Christopher Nolan´s "The Prestige" being the most recent irritating example.

I have argued the "con" case to this con-job, but "House of Games" has its high points as well. Out of all the strange performances, Joe Mantegna creates the most convincing character as the charming bad guy Mike. And any film that sports Ricky Jay in its cast can´t possibly be all bad. The moody noir-ish photography by Juan Ruiz Anchia also makes use of some very limited spaces to create a genuinely murky atmosphere for these hoods to operate in, making "House of Games" the best looking film in Mamet´s oeuvre; Anchia delivered similarly excellent work on "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992), written by Mamet, but directed by James Foley.

It´s rare that I complain about a film primarily based of its plot, but so much of the "pro" case for "House of Games" relies on the alleged cleverness of the scam. I not only failed to find it clever; I thought it was downright idiotic producing a series of "Oh come on!" moments for me. Then again, I feel exactly the same way about another allegedly "clever" film, Bryan Singer´s terminally silly "The Usual Suspects."

I´m not going to scam you: I can´t stand "House of Games." I know it is a cult favorite, and finds a place both on Roger Ebert´s Great Movies list and in Jonathan Rosenbaum´s "Essential Cinema" canon, not to mention just about every book titled "101 Movies You Have To See Before You Die" or anything remotely similar. Nonetheless, I first watched it on VHS many years ago, and even after a second viewing on this excellent DVD release from Criterion, I still find it nearly unbearable.

There are several hurdles to clear before one can appreciate David Mamet´s directorial debut, chief among them being the acting style. It´s tempting to describe the acting as "theatrical" since Mamet had already earned his coin on the stage before jumping behind the camera (he had also previously written screenplays for "The Verdict" and the 1981 remake of "The Postman Rings Twice.") But that description doesn´t do justice to the bewildering performances in this film. As in most of Mamet´s films, all of the characters speak in the same voice, pouncing on each other´s lines and repeating the same phrases over and over.

But in "House of Games," more so than in any other Mamet film, the characters speak in dull, flat tones, as if they are reading lines off a cue card just off camera; the readings are so stiff and stilted one sometimes wonders if they are foreign speakers being asked to phoneticize English words. Lead actress Lindsay Crouse (as Dr. Maggie Ford, champion psychiatrist and sucker-in-the-making) is so robotic, I´d be willing to wager that Jeri Ryan used her as a model when crafting the role of Seven of Nine. This isn´t a mistake, of course, but rather a stylistic choice on Mamet´s part, and if you can accept or even acclimatize to these idiosyncratic performances, you are much more likely to enjoy the film. I was never able to make that leap.

Another hurdle is the film´s Byzantine plot, concerning the machinations of a group of con men trying to make a fast buck at the expense of several other characters, Dr. Maggie Ford among them. Any detailed plot summation will spoil the film, so I will summarize briefly. In order to save one of her patients from a debt, Dr. Ford wanders into a nightclub where a group of con men operate; the strait-laced psychiatrist and best-selling author quickly becomes enamored of life on the wild side, and falls hard for the ring leader Mike (Joe Mantegna.) She becomes a vicarious participant in a series of scams, ostensibly acting as an objective reporter gathering material for her next book, but secretly getting her kicks from being a naughty, naughty girl.

In an early scene, Joe (Mike Nussbaum) demonstrates a classic bread and butter con known as "the Flue" which involves scamming a helpless clerk and pawning a twenty. The scam is brilliant in it simplicity, but the film´s big con (which I won´t spoil here) is anything but simple, requiring an extraordinary amount of time to unfold, and relying on perfect timing, a series of coincidences, and the ability to perfectly predict precisely how another person will react in a certain situation. The film´s fans believe the big con to be clever as hell, but I found it totally unconvincing precisely because it´s too damned clever for its own good. Surely the con man operates by the K.I.S.S. principle, and would never design something so elaborate it is doomed to collapse under its own weight. Mamet falls in love with the idea of repeatedly pulling the rug out from under the audience, an approach to story-telling which I have never enjoyed, Christopher Nolan´s "The Prestige" being the most recent irritating example.

I have argued the "con" case to this con-job, but "House of Games" has its high points as well. Out of all the strange performances, Joe Mantegna creates the most convincing character as the charming bad guy Mike. And any film that sports Ricky Jay in its cast can´t possibly be all bad. The moody noir-ish photography by Juan Ruiz Anchia also makes use of some very limited spaces to create a genuinely murky atmosphere for these hoods to operate in, making "House of Games" the best looking film in Mamet´s oeuvre; Anchia delivered similarly excellent work on "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992), written by Mamet, but directed by James Foley.

It´s rare that I complain about a film primarily based of its plot, but so much of the "pro" case for "House of Games" relies on the alleged cleverness of the scam. I not only failed to find it clever; I thought it was downright idiotic producing a series of "Oh come on!" moments for me. Then again, I feel exactly the same way about another allegedly "clever" film, Bryan Singer´s terminally silly "The Usual Suspects."

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