Saturday, November 11, 2006

Mamet's Nasty "Edmond"

Just saw this not-that-good film: Edmond, directed by Stuart Gordon from David Mamet's one-act play. It's a very grim and somewhat obnoxious trip to hell. One may argue that all trips to hell should be so painful; I'd argue that artistic representations should also be interesting if not fascinating, and that the lead character ought to summon from the viewer something like empathy, a sense of feeling how someone can be driven to certain extremes even if we don't agree, rather than extreme annoyance and dislike, which is about all William Macy delivers.

Macy stars as the title character, a businessman who has played it safe for so long that his life has become cramped and predictable. He decides to shake it up by suddenly leaving his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon, surprisingly good in her brief scene) and taking a headlong dive into the dark side of Manhattan. His full name is Edmond Burke, and while I'm not really up to speed on my philosophers, I'm sure there's an ironic reference in there somewhere. After sharing his woes with a stranger (Joe Mantegna) -- and getting a dose of the kind of hopped-up, pissed-off castrated male barroom philosophy as only Mantegna can deliver -- Edmond heads for a quick fix of pussy.

Was the real Edmund Burke an economic philosopher of some kind, who theorized about how to keep inflation at bay, or at any rate how to shop for bargains? That would certainly suit Macy's character, whose first major discovery is that the price for blow jobs, lap dances, and a straight fuck are just totally out of control. Edmond knows how to drive a hard bargain, as he gets both Denise Richards (as a stripper) and Mena Suvari (as a hooker) to lower their prices to well below market value. This talent at bargaining doesn't keep him from getting robbed and then beaten at a three-card monte game, which -- combined with his multiple frustrations at sex-worker scalping -- cranks up his anxiety to a frantic, murderous degree. Edmond sees the world as a crawling pit of ooze where no one can ever tell the truth about anything and everyone is out to get you -- a perspective that is not remotely allayed by the fact that Julia Stiles (as a sympathetic waitress) agrees to do him for nothing. Instead, he goes spiralling out of control, as his trip through the New York nighttown becomes wildly violent and destructive, and ultimately destroys Edmond's life; he winds up in prison, the whacked-out bitch of someone bigger and stronger, leaving him to ponder into eternity on what it all -- God, life, death, salvation, etc. -- really means, if anything.

I'm not sure Edmond is what you would call a nihilistic work, because it's not especially clear just how much of Edmond's conversations, with a priest and with his jailmate rapist, is to be taken all that seriously. For one thing, Edmond from the beginning is a hard person to like and nearly impossible one to care about, mainly because his frustrated wimpiness -- in which Macy excels (see Fargo and Boogie Nights) -- is more alienating and unpleasant than anything else, so much so that he keeps you from feeling his pain. His own brutality keeps his disquisitions, and by extension Mamet's, on the injustice of the universe from ever having impact or meaning.

I find myself as I write this thinking of another, similarly wretched and lonely character in another famous one-act: Jerry in Albee's The Zoo Story, who will risk forcing a stranger to kill him if it will mean connecting with another human being. You feel for him in a way you never do for Edmond.

On the plus side, it's generally watchable enough thanks to Gordon. He made the fantastic comic gorefests Re-Animator and From Beyond some twenty years ago, where he showed a real facility for not letting the utter silly absurdity of a story get in the way of its creepiness -- which is presumably why he was chosen to helm this one.

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