Fleshing out a tight, one- or two-set stage play for the big screen has always been a challenge not easily met, and the theatrical roots show rather clearly in the case of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” A superb cast acting out one of David Mamet’s major works gives New Line quite a bit of promotional ammo, and will be enough to justify a look for many serious, upscale viewers. But it doesn’t quite all come together here as it did onstage, and relentless scabrousness, heavy claustrophobia and a vaguely dated feel are among the elements that will keep mainstream audiences away.
After runs in London and Chicago, Mamet’s savage look at a slimy group of small-time real estate salesmen opened on Broadway in 1984 to strong reviews and went on to a solid engagement of 378 performances. Producer Jerry Tokofsky has been trying to get his pic version off the ground almost ever since, and finally succeeded in rounding up a dream cast of big names to appear in what needed to be a modestly budgeted production.
In adapting his short two-act, two-set, seven-character piece, Mamet has moved the action around a little bit to provide a few diverse settings, but the basic contours of the play remain very much in place. Harsh story examines the underhanded, eventually criminal activities of the salesmen as they compete to outdo one another in hustling dubious properties to phone clients.
Key to their sales efforts are “leads,” the quality of which has a lot to do with whether or not they meet the requirements of their hard-driving bosses and are able to keep their jobs. Most in danger of getting the ax is, unsurprisingly , the oldest employee, Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon), who begs, pleads and deals for better leads than the worthless ones he’s been dealt.
By rote, he makes his timeworn sales pitches, both over the phone and in person, but in the high-powered sales world personified by Blake (Alec Baldwin), the terrorist from the head office, there’s clearly no place for a dinosaur like Shelley.
Also in jeopardy and strategizing in different ways are George (Alan Arkin) and Dave (Ed Harris). Kevin Spacey plays the by-the-books office manager, while Jonathan Pryce plays a cowering customer.
But in contrast to all these drones is Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), a hotshot salesman who seems to know every trick in the book and how to play it. Unlike the others, Roma is nattily dressed and tan, and comes off like a guy who’s going to use the system, not be used by it.
Action is divided exactly into 50-minute halves, with the second act unfolding in the wake of an office robbery of the premium leads. While Shelley dominates the first section, Roma presides over the second, as Mamet propels things toward a startling, abrupt end.
The piece remains gripping in a way, but not in as captivating or edifying a way as it did onstage. Reasons are not easy to define, but have to do with the rhythms of the acting, the magnification of artificial devices by the camera and the fact that director James Foley has gotten a mite fancy in his approach.
Playing a sad, desperate variation on Willy Loman, Lemmon hits many notes that ring painfully true. But it’s also the case that he’s been on this downtrodden road before, and be it the woefully pathetic character or the terrifying accurateness of the perf, there’s something about seeing Shelley so close up that makes one want to flee his presence.
An old Mamet hand, Pacino knows his way around the territory and the language and comes up aces in Joe Mantegna’s Tony-winning part. Also just right are Ed Harris as a pugnacious younger agent; Alan Arkin as a complaining, endangered veteran; and Kevin Spacey as the stony manager.
Baldwin’s ferocious speech early on about the sanctity of the bottom line is scary and stands as a caustic indictment of the 1980s business mentality. Mamet reveals his exceptional talent for writing almost poetic working-class vernacular, scores his major implicit thematic thrusts against the nature of the way business-at-large is conducted.
But the viewer remains at a considerable remove, partly because director James Foley’s attempts to keep the visuals lively and moving create their own sense of distraction. While Juan-Ruiz Anchia’s lighting is enormously inventive and colorful, there are a few too many camera moves, unnecessarily elaborate setups and attention-getting cutting tricks.
Aside from those moments when it becomes obvious, Howard Smith’s editing is extremely tight and propulsive, and James Newton Howard’s jazzy score is a real plus.