American Buffalo plays well on the screen
Screenplay by David Mamet, based on his play.
Directed by Michael Corrente.
Starring Dennis Franz, Dustin Hoffman, and Sean Nelson.
Coolidge Corner Theatre.By Yaron Koren
David Mamet's American Buffalo is a rarity in mainstream movies with top-rate talent. It's a movie that shows the ugly side of human nature without condemning it or glamorizing it. Mamet gives us a thoughtful, honest examination of the loss of trust that occurs when business is mixed with friendship.
Donny Dubrow (NYPD Blue's Dennis Franz) is a junk shop owner who knows a great deal about business and dealing with clients but little about coins. His friend, known as "Teach" (Dustin Hoffman), has a very close rapport with Donny, but there are some tensions between the two even from the start. Teach, as befits the name, acts as an instructor, and considers himself the more sophisticated and worldly of the two, the man who will save Donny from his foolish mistakes.
The plot revolves around a single coin, a somewhat rare Buffalo-head nickel, which was bought at the store by a mysterious customer who paid much more for the coin than its listed price. Donny, confused by the customer's arrogance and convinced that the coin is worth even more than the customer paid for it, decides that he will try to steal the coin back from the man's house when he is away on vacation. He drafts Bobby (Sean Nelson), a local boy whom Donny has been treating as a surrogate son, to perform the actual theft. Soon Teach gets into the plan as well and begins to second-guess Donny's decisions on how to carry it out. Most of the rest of the movie deals with the events leading up to the planned break-in that night - and its unexpectedly botched execution.
The two costars are superb, with Hoffman providing the manic energy in a necessarily over-the-top performance and Franz the ponderous gravity as a man weighed down by years of banal existence. The sparks fly between the two during their prolonged scenes together.
The only other cast member, the 15-year-old Nelson, coming out of his brilliant newcomer performance in the underappreciated Fresh, once again is solid as a street-smart novice whose alienation to the world of the coin-selling is easily (but wrongly) construed as naivete.
American Buffalo's dialogue is spellbinding, as is to be expected from a movie based on a David Mamet play. The characters' interchanges are well-timed, with an ear for the authentic. As in Glengary Glenn Ross, internal squabbles and desperation are forced out through a stream of idle chatter. Hoffman and Franz both understand this, conveying a variety of hidden agendas through their lines, although Franz clearly has the upper hand here. Franz turns out to be the undiscovered jewel of this production, a sort of softer, more angst-filled Harvey Keitel. This role may yet turn him into a bankable screen star.
Of course, any play-based movie must eventually come to terms with the same problem: how to translate into film, a visually-based medium, from theater, which is essentially verbally-based. In American Buffalo the problem is acute, given the minimal cast, a single setting, and no action. Director Michael Corrente (Federal Hill) does his best here to open up the film, having the actors make full use of the junk shop setting - especially at the confrontational ending - and bringing them out into the Chicago streets at times.
This remains a small movie, however, with our focus trained on the dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Still, it should not be ignored in favor of its flashier, slicker on-screen contemporaries. Not as successful as Glengary Glenn Ross, which had a bigger cast and more complex plotting, American Buffalo nevertheless lets you into the souls of its characters and communicates a powerful message about the corrupting influence of money on even the closest of friendships.