William H. Macy, Julia Stiles, Joe Mantegna. Written by David Mamet. Director Stuart Gordon
Macy plays a bland, insignificant executive in a large corporation who one day decides to leave his wife out of sheer boredom. Exploring his new freedom, he walks around sleazy bars and strip joints in NYC, engages street hustlers, pimps, and prostitutes. In all this he seems unrealistically naïve about how street life works, and increasingly detached. Finally repressed rage bursts out and he becomes even more dissociative, manic and violent. At the end of the movie the psychosis is gone and he is only eccentric. So the short story is, mild-mannered executive has a psychotic break.
Basing a story around mental disorder is a cheap trick because no ordinary psychological motivation applies. The character can do or say anything because “he is nuts.” Consequently, the story is arbitrary and uninteresting. There is a thin attempt to say that “modern life” causes “basic manhood” to become repressed rage, but that is just cheesy psychobabble. In a DVD deleted scene, we see a fortune teller set up the story as that of Macy’s fate unfolding. I agree that would have been an even less interesting theme than unexplained madness.
Despite all these flaws, Macy’s acting leaps off the screen. He is absolutely stunning, showing amazing range of expression and subtlety, utterly convincing at all times. The movie gets an A based on his performance alone. Julia Stiles does an excellent job. Mantegna is disappointing in a bit part. Mamet’s dialog is very “Mamet-esque” and sometimes his authorial speechifying gets in the way, but I love Mamet, so never mind. The screenplay tracks his book, “The three uses of the knife” philosophically and metaphorically. I was utterly enthralled throughout, even knowing my strings were being pulled. Too bad this is an obscure independent film. It’s the best acting there is.