New! Improved! Now with less mercury! Well, improved is arguable but “Speed-the-Plow” is certainly undiminished and in many ways makes more sense with William H. Macy as the vacillating studio production chief. Stepping in after the abrupt exit of Jeremy Piven reportedly due to exhaustion and elevated sushi intake (seriously), Macy’s long experience as a David Mamet collaborator shows in his mastery of the playwright’s ricochet dialogue. Equally significant is the actor’s screen persona — shaped by a string of humiliated losers in films like “Fargo,” “Magnolia” and “The Cooler” — which adds poignant ripples of fear and desperation to his easily manipulated character.
Macy has a few years on Piven, which gives an additional edge to the power struggle between Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox (Raul Esparza), the hungry producer latching onto his coattails while snapping at his heels. And costumer Laura Bauer has given Macy new outfits that provide sly character insight. Gone is the relaxed, casual command of Piven’s suede jacket, T-shirt and jeans. Instead, Macy’s all-black attire points to a guy trying a little too hard to stay young and hip; following his overnight enlightenment, he returns in denim and chinos, like some eternal Marlboro Man suspended in the ’70s.
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The suddenness of that epiphany has always been one of the weaknesses of Mamet’s three-character 1988 comedy about the dominion of commerce over art in Hollywood. How could a guy this sharp-witted and driven allow himself to be derailed by a temp — whose little-girl naivete may or may not mask a core of calculating ambition?
That pivotal second scene — in which the seemingly green and gullible Karen (Elisabeth Moss) convinces Bobby to ditch a formulaic violent prison-buddy-action-romance movie packaged around a top box office star, and instead to back an artsy cri de coeur about the end of civilization — now is a little more persuasive.
While she continues to keep the central guessing game in play, Moss has grown more focused in the role since the production opened last fall. Karen is so impassioned and determined it’s not tough to imagine a guy like Macy’s Bobby being swayed by her enthusiasm (he calls it a “freshness”), particularly if there’s a bedroom detour involved.
Punchy as he is on the surface, Bobby is distinctly frayed by the bruising interplay of studio culture, in which even protocol phrases like “Thank you” and “Pay me the courtesy” carry a sting of hostility. Having clambered up from the mail room to his new but no doubt precarious perch, Bobby is eager to hang onto it. But he’s tired. “Everyone wants something from me,” he snarls. That makes him susceptible to Karen’s unlikely offer of spiritual cleansing, of putting meaning back into his life by making a movie that will give people hope.
All this comes across more urgently in Macy’s performance. He’s less shticky and fun than Piven was in the role but he has bone-deep vulnerability, which makes Bobby’s momentary slip more plausible.
The stakes are also raised further in Mamet’s machine-tooled third act, directed with unerring precision and dizzying speed by Neil Pepe.
If Bobby is more obviously weakened by his flirtation with purity and newfound personal ethics, Charlie is terrified by it. Esparza steps up to match the subtle tonal shifts introduced by Macy’s casting, his animal intensity and caffeinated physicality never wavering for an instant. Charlie wears his panic right under his skin alongside his resentment, knowing that if Bobby goes down, his chances of success go down with him. He still savors his victory, but he sweats buckets over it.
Even at the top of their game, these guys in Mamet’s corrosively observed world are doomed to keep looking over their shoulder at the next potential downfall. That makes them a sorry-ass pair as success stories go and, at a time when the Masters of the Universe in countless professions are suddenly looking shaky, it gives this lean-and-mean production an extra sting.