Lost in the House of Games


A seminal vernacular demiurge in his stagecraft, David Mamet has tended toward a sort of hard-boiled mushiness in his films. Oleanna is an ax-to-the-head exception, as is the zombielike House of Games, but on film, Mamet has otherwise attempted to mainstream his voice; Things Change, Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner, State and Main, and his latest, Heist, could have all been perpetrated by Mamet-aping Hollywood nobodies. No harm done: Wishy-washy Mamet still comes equipped with propane dialogue and stone-cold bits of acting marksmanship. Heist is a neat, bouncy, minor-key crime procedural that shakes no rafters. Glorious, freestanding Mametisms are dropped into it like beef hunks into clear soup: “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.” Or: “My motherfucker is so cool that when he sleeps, sheep count him.”

With an overripe affection for his milieu, Mamet again takes on his favorite subterraneans: bunko artists and scam thieves. Joe (Gene Hackman) is the prototypical looking-to-get-out vet of jewel heists and double-crosses; fronting as a Boston boatbuilder, he’s looking to just sail down Argentine way after one last score. His bankroller (Danny DeVito, not quite up to the juicy lines Mamet gives him) blackmails him into one last job—robbing a Swiss cargo plane right on the runway.

The predictable domino trail of backstabbings puts Joe at odds, on and off, with his team (Delroy Lindo, Ricky Jay), his trophy wife (Rebecca Pidgeon), and the stooge he’s forced to take along (Sam Rockwell). Working with the unadventuresome, self-congratulating genre established by The Sting, Mamet seems only interested in the plot’s who’s-scamming-who clockwork. (Theodore Shapiro’s score is pure Quinn Martin Productions.) Refreshingly low-tech, Heist never applies a moral compass to its protagonists or their actions. Easily the most violent and self-preserving person in the film, Hackman’s Joe is seen as lovably old-school, a mensch heading toward a well-earned retirement.

Heist‘s title promises an objective take on grift-theft mechanics, but Mamet’s visual storytelling isn’t in the league of, say, Kubrick’s or Bresson’s. His heaviest weapon is his postnoir line-writing; only Elmore Leonard can muster up such hilarious authority. Heist seems finally overclever and a little threadbare—the genre has only so much frisson to offer without noir’s acknowledgment of doom.

As the perfect divorced dad whose son is besieged by an infiltrating Evil Stepfather in Domestic Disturbance, John Travolta is also a boatbuilder—a sign of Hollywood’s new nautical craftsman chic. Nothing more than a return to the post-Fatal Attraction template—upper-middle-class family menaced by discontented maniac—Harold Becker’s 90-minute movie is so bare-bones it seems to have been winnowed down from a more complicated creation. (This suspicion is fueled by Becker’s history of worm-turnings, i.e., Malice, The Black Marble, Taps, Sea of Love.) It’s dire, unimaginative silliness, mitigated only by Travolta’s natural good humor and by Steve Buscemi’s molding up the movie’s edges as the seamy crook who comes to town to squeeze ex-partner-turned-civic hero Vince Vaughn. The latter’s lizard-lipped millionaire is getting married to Travolta’s ex (Teri Polo), and their 12-year-old son (Matthew O’Leary) likes the situation even less once he sees Mom’s new boyfriend kill the stranger and burn the body. As the basest form of genre hootenanny, it wimps out: There’s no twist, no showboat acting, not even an outrageous crisis of paternal violence. A few fumblings, a grapple, a head smacked through a car window, and it ends.