Blog Directory CineVerse: The leads are weak, but the movie's not

The leads are weak, but the movie's not

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

In 1992, James Foley helmed the cinematic adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer-prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, setting critics and audiences abuzz with excitement about its performances, dialogue, and tense dramatic sequences. The screenplay, also penned by Mamet, ensured a faithful representation of the play's dialogue and themes.

The movie boasts an exceptional ensemble cast, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, and Jonathan Pryce. Set in a cutthroat and highly competitive real estate sales environment, the story revolves around a group of salesmen who resort to extreme measures to secure deals and achieve success. It’s a gripping narrative that delves into themes of desperation, morality, and the unforgiving realities of the American Dream.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

Glengarry Glen Ross benefits from the whip-smart writing of Mamet, especially the characters' credible dialogue and distinctive vernacular, as well as the rhythm and cadence of the language. It also ripples and resonates on the strength of incredible casting, featuring an A list of top-notch actors, each of whom could carry their own movie: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and Jonathan Pryce. Notably, Pacino and Lemmon's outstanding acting received critical acclaim, while Alec Baldwin's brief yet impactful appearance earned him widespread recognition, especially for delivering one of the most memorable monologues in cinematic history.

Interestingly, the story is efficiently condensed, occurring over roughly 24 hours; hence, we get a snapshot portrait of each character within a short time frame and a pressure cooker milieu.

Most importantly, Glengarry Glen Ross penetrates with intense and razor-sharp dialogue: Mamet's script is renowned for the rapid-fire words that come out of his characters’ mouths – verbal exchanges that delve deep into the personalities and psyches of these men in which_ the cutthroat nature of the sales world. Arguably, the film set a benchmark for exceptional writing, boasting several iconic monologues, such as Alec Baldwin's powerful "Always Be Closing" speech, which has become legendary within the realm of cinema.

However, there isn’t much of a story here; the office theft and the investigation of it add intrigue, but this is less of a plot than it is a character study and a depiction of a harsh workplace environment and vocation. Written originally as a stage play, the movie is bereft of action and shifts to interesting settings. Hence, this isn’t a film that’s going to showcase dramatic camera movement, innovative editing techniques, or impressive sets. It’s a work that soars or fails on the merits of its characters, which means it had better be finely scripted and superbly acted.

Consider, too, that it’s a quite bleak, pessimistic, and tonally dark picture with many unsympathetic characters, which can leave you feeling depressed and cynical.

Mamet’s work explores how the quest for materialistic rewards leads to corruption, decay, and destruction. He stated that the play is about “how business corrupts” and about how “those in power in the business world…act unethically.”

Indeed, Glengarry Glen Ross provides a scathing critique of American capitalism and the fiercely competitive sales landscape, where success is rewarded and failure is brutally punished. This “rich get richer and poor get poorer” economic structure reveals that those who succeed are rewarded with more opportunities to drive, while those who struggle cannot advance. The film effectively showcases the lengths to which people will go and the sacrifices they are willing to make to get ahead.

Critics and historians have posited that this play, written in the 1980s, is Mamet’s critique of Reaganomics and the “greed is good” materialistic ideology of the eighties. Mamet was heard to say about his play: “This play is not…about love. This is a play about guys, who when one guy is down…the guy who’s up then kicks the other guy in the balls to make sure he stays down.”

A further lesson imparted herein: Nobody wins in a corporate culture that emphasizes greed and numbers over human beings. By the end of the film, every character has lost—Roma’s sale to Lingk has been lost; Lingk feels like he has disappointed Roma; Williamson has lost business and productivity after the offices ransacked; Levene and Moss will be prosecuted; and an emotionally shaken Aaranow is accused of theft.

Glengarry Glen Ross perfectly conveys the universal experience of being in a job you hate and feeling powerless and desperate as you’re trapped in that position.

This is also a study about the persuasiveness of language: those characters who can verbalize persuasively succeed and command respect.

In this story, masculinity defines a character, and masculinity in this universe is earned. Fascinatingly, though, as the narrative unfolds each character is eventually stripped of power and emasculated in some way.

Similar Works

  • Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
  • Wall Street
  • Margin Call
  • Boiler Room
  • Swimming With Sharks
  • Reservoir Dogs, in how there’s not much of a plot, it’s a character-driven piece with terrific dialogue, and nearly every character betrays each other.
  • Patton, in that both films start with tremendous opening monologues that play like stern pep talks.

Other films by James Foley

  • At Close Range
  • Who’s That Girl
  • Confidence

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