The star quality of Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz should prove a draw for this film version of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” A three-character, one-set chamber piece, pic lacks the bravura moments of the film version of the playwright’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which may limit its box office appeal.
Mamet, adapting his play, and director Michael Corrente have declined to do much opening up of the story, which is about two losers and a loser-in-training planning and failing to follow through on a heist. While Corrente takes us through the streets of his native Providence, R.I., forthe opening sequence, the bulk of the film takes place in and around Don Dubrow’s (Franz) junk shop. Don takes a fatherly view toward Bobby (Sean Nelson), a teen who has been running errands for him.
Bobby’s latest job is to keep an eye on a customer who bought what apparently was a valuable coin from Don, who, not having realized the value of the coin himself, feels violated. He intends his revenge by robbing the home of the customer. Don’s partner in crime is Teach (Hoffman), another loser who fancies himself an expert on the human condition. He pontificates at length, but the more he talks the more obvious it becomes that he has little but his own small-minded venality to offer.
They await the arrival of another partner, and it is in the endless waiting that the “action” of the story takes place. The only real development in the story is the growing tension between Don and Bobby caused by the endless badgering of Teach, who doesn’t come right out and attack Don until late in the film. Instead he wheedles and cajoles, getting under Don’s skin until Don seems willing to do almost anything just to end the irritation.
As a finely etched character study rather than a plot-driven film, “American Buffalo” rises or falls on the strength of its performances. Hoffman’s turn here may strike some as larger than life, but he gets it exactly right: Teach is always playing to an audience, including himself, to try to convince the world that his view is the only view. Even more impressive is Franz, whose previous feature work, notably for Brian De Palma, did not require him to bear the weight of a film on his shoulders.
His TV work, especially on “NYPD Blue,” has allowed him to stretch, and it pays off here. Don is the center of the story: The other two characters try to manipulate him to get what they want. In a sense, it’s a struggle for Don’s soul. For this setup to work, viewers must care about Don. Franz brings to the part both a lowlife grittiness and the sense of an inner core of integrity that makes the battle for his loyalty worth fighting.
It is Franz’s Don who lingers in the memory at film’s end. Nelson is fine as Bobby, but his character is more the object of the struggle than a full-blown character. Don offers him loyalty while Teach wants to disrupt and separate the two, and Bobby’s motivations are never really explained. Nelson plays Mamet’s lines with the appropriate hesitations, making us and Don think he’s hiding something and allowing Teach to chip away a bit more.
Corrente, whose first film was another Providence crime drama (“Federal Hill”), avoids the sophomore curse by working in service of Mamet’s script. Although it is essentially a filmed play, Corrente’s pacing, and the brief running time, prevent claustrophobia from setting in.