×

A Life in the Theatre

David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre" is a disappointment on the screen, despite the presence of high-pedigree talent on both sides of the camera. Turner Broadcasting presentation, world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, will have its cable TV debut Oct. 9 on TNT. Foreign theatrical prospects appear slim, but lead players Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick likely will guarantee some shelf life via homevid.

With:
Robert ... Jack Lemmon John ... Matthew Broderick

David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre” is a disappointment on the screen, despite the presence of high-pedigree talent on both sides of the camera. Turner Broadcasting presentation, world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, will have its cable TV debut Oct. 9 on TNT. Foreign theatrical prospects appear slim, but lead players Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick likely will guarantee some shelf life via homevid.

At best, pic is a slight improvement over the play’s previous TV adaptation, an unfortunately literal-minded videotaping (produced in the late 1970s for PBS) that’s memorable only for recording the brilliant performances of Ellis Rabb and the late Peter Evans, stars of the original 1977 off-Broadway production.

Lemmon and Broderick are the stars here, playing two members of a second-rate repertory company in an unnamed modern-day city. Robert (Lemmon) is a grandiloquent old pro who clearly senses, but never acknowledges, his career is in decline. John (Broderick) is a talented newcomer whose awed respect for Robert curdles into impatience and annoyance while they share a dressing room during a long theatrical season.

“A Life in the Theatre” alternates between excerpts from onstage productions (some very amusingly evocative of Chekhov and other greats) and elliptical episodes of offstage conversations between the two actors. The film, like the play, can be read as a metaphor for teacher-student and parent-child relationships. Or it can simply be enjoyed as Mamet’s love letter to the temple where he works his magic.

On either level, this film version is a misfire.

For his first effort as a filmmaker, Gregory Mosher, the veteran legit director who staged the play’s first Chicago production, has done his best to open up Mamet’s two-character, two-set drama. With the considerable assistance of production designer David Wasco and cinematographer Freddie Francis, Mosher creates a low-rent universe of neighborhood bars, seedy hotels and backstage dressing rooms in vividly realistic detail.

This turns out to be a major miscalculation, however, in that Mamet’s meticulously stylized dialogue sounds jarringly off-key — and, occasionally, downright ludicrous — in such a realistically drawn environment. Worse, by taking a realistic approach, Mosher underscores the artificiality of having Lemmon and Broderick be the only ones on screen who ever speak.

Mosher also has erred in tipping the play’s balance of sympathy so obviously in favor of the older actor essayed by Lemmon. But Lemmon, too, merits criticism for relying so heavily on pathos-inducing shtick, and forbeing so transparent in his efforts to make Robert a tragic figure. The performance is all the more dismaying when compared to Lemmon’s wonderful work last year in the Mamet-scripted “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

With the deck stacked so heavily in favor of his co-star, Broderick provides a genuinely pleasant surprise with his fine, effectively sharp-edged performance as John. His evolution from callow, eager-to-please acolyte to self-assured, nakedly ambitious professional is impressive in a non-showy manner, much like Broderick’s seriously underrated performance in “Glory.”

The best parts of this “Life in the Theatre” are the surefire comedy bits — the brief scenes of onstage disasters involving missed cues and defective props. But these are rare moments in a 78-minute production that seems much longer.

A Life in the Theatre

(Drama -- Color)

Production: Turner Pictures presentation of a Beacon Communications and Bay Kinescope production in association with Jalem Prods. Produced by Patricia Wolff and Thomas A. Bliss. Executive producers, David Mamet, Marc Abraham. Associate producers, Connie McCauley and Paddy Cullen. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Screenplay, David Mamet, based on his play.

Crew: Camera (color), Freddie Francis; editor, Barbara Tulliver; production design, David Wasco; set decorator, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco; costumes, Jane Greenwood; first assistant director, Michael Zimbrich; second assistant director, Stuart Brian Hagen. Reviewed at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, Sept. 14, 1993. Running time: 78 mins.

With: Robert ... Jack Lemmon John ... Matthew Broderick

More Film

  • FX's 'Snowfall' Panel TCA Winter Press

    John Singleton Hospitalized After Suffering Stroke

    UPDATED with statements from John Singleton’s family and FX Networks John Singleton, the Oscar nominated director and writer of “Boyz N’ the Hood,” has suffered a stroke. Sources confirm to Variety that Singleton checked himself into the hospital earlier this week after experiencing pain in his leg. The stroke has been characterized by doctors as [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow

    'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow Easter Weekend at the Box Office

    New Line’s horror pic “The Curse of La Llorona” will summon a solid $25 million debut at the domestic box office, leading a quiet Easter weekend before Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters on April 26. The James Wan-produced “La Llorona,” playing in 3,372 theaters, was a hit with hispanic audiences, who accounted for nearly 50% [...]

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content