Homicide

Homicide movie poster

 

Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) comes to see himself as torn between two discrete worlds in David Mamet’s Homicide (1991). Only when maneuvered into a position in which he must choose, the duality unravels and he finds he is no one special and belongs nowhere in particular.

Gold’s partner Sullivan (William H. Macy) has an unreserved man-crush on him, taking every opportunity to publicly butter him up and extol the therapeutic pleasures of police work. He reminds their peers that his revered partner is “Bobby The Orator,” so-called for his skill at negotiation. Indeed the moniker is deserving, for he is called on to calm a rabid dog with mere words, and later sweet-talk a ferociously stubborn mother into betraying her son. But Gold is certainly no action hero, confirmed in a early scene as he is beaten up and disarmed by an overweight civilian, in the sanctuary of the police station. By the end of the film, he has lost his sidearm a second time and is quickly physically bested again by the crook Randolph (Ving Rhames). Is it too much of a stretch to link his failure to control his weapon with impotence and castration? He certainly feels perpetually aggrieved. At each unfair turn in these very unfair events, he repeats his refrain: “What did I ever do to you?”

William H. Macy and Joe Mantegna in Homicide“You got some heavy troubles on your mind? Huh, babe? We’ll work it out. We’ll play some cops and robbers. We’ll bust this big criminal. We’ll swagger around.”

Bobby accidentally comes across a seemingly mundane murder while chasing down the sexier Randolph case (the kind of unambiguous, action-packed police work, with measurable results, that grants Gold and Sullivan existential satisfaction). Elderly Jewish woman Mrs. Klein has been found murdered in her inner-city candy shop. Everything points to a simple robbery, “everything” being, of course, the supposition that poor neighborhood African Americans have robbed a rare white business. Klein’s son, not quite grieving but resigned to a lifetime of persecution, sighs “It never ends.” When Bobby asks “What never ends?”, granddaughter (Rebecca Pigeon) coldly clarifies for him: “On the jews.” Already the murder escalates from a robbery to a hate crime, and this is a strong whiff of catnip for a man who also believes himself to be perpetually put-upon and aggrieved. As the Klein family correctly infers, Bobby is a Jew. But he wears a 5-point star as a cop. His sublimated Jewish pride only comes out in defense against the occasional professional flare-up in which he is called a “kike.”

Fittingly for a detective celebrated for a mastery of words, pursuing the Klein murder case is more an act of literary scholarship than one of police procedure. Gold’s investigation brings him to a Jewish research library where he senses deeper mysteries encoded in his ancestral Yiddish. His single best clue is the tantalizing derivation of the nonsense-seeming word “Grofatz.” All of this leads him into a confrontation with a decades-old group of Zionist warriors (who may be or may not be the Mossad, although the name is not mentioned in the film) who awaken him to his vengeful Jewish identity. Hungry for the rush of positive action that his cop side is currently denying him, he elbows his way into their ranks and becomes addicted to violent action.

Rebecca Pigeon in Homicide“Hey, you’re better than an aquarium, you know that? There’s something happening with you every minute.”

But Homicide is a policier on the surface only. Like most of Mamet’s plays and screenplays, the plot is structured around a deep, complex confidence game. House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross (read The Dork Report review), Spartan, and Redbelt (read The Dork Report review) all feature a long con of one form or another at their cores. A sucker is a sucker because of the truism that if one looks hard enough for something, one will find it. Most of Gold’s apparent clues and leads evaporate into meaningless happenstance. What is at stake is not what he thinks, and he finds himself used and abandoned.

Special mention goes to fine cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. The decaying Baltimore provides for two spectacular chase scenes, one along the rooftops and another below the asphalt. Each coils into a labyrinth, spiraling down and in, deeper and deeper, until Bobby encounters physically powerless but immovable minotaur-like figures the disarmed man must battle with his words alone.


Must read: Homicide: What Are You, Then? by Stuart Klawans

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The Impostors

The Impostors movie poster

 

Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors (1998) is without a doubt one of the funniest and most purely enjoyable movies I’ve ever seen. And that’s really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression. Baldly composed as a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, it has the feel of a filmed stage play like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off (1992) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The production values may be frankly rather cheap, but it turns its budget into a virtue as the same sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect, and finally as the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. Refreshingly, The Impostors is an affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.

Olive Platt and Stanley Tucci in The Impostors“To life… and its many deaths.”

The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are two perpetually out-of-work actors so enamored of their chosen profession that they will not consider pursuing any other line of work even when faced with starvation. Their daily routine consists of staging acting exercises for themselves in public, duping passersby into serving as their participatory audience, like a prototype of modern-day pranksters Improv Everywhere. An escalating series of misadventures finally delivers them into a scenario in which their acting skills for once become useful: the opportunity to portray fabulously rich cruise ship passengers, to save the day, and of course to die magnificently heartbreaking deaths while doing so. One could argue that what Arthur and Maurice want, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. It’s worth noting that most of the legitimate passengers are anything but; most have either lost fortunes during the Depression, are conspiring to steal new ones, or plot to wreak terrorist havoc in the name of fascism.

Lili Taylor and Campbell Scott in The Impostors“The danger of the chase has made you perspire. It has made me also… moist.”

Tucci’s paean to acting attracted an ensemble cast to die for, including a dream team of 1990s indie superstars including Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, and Campbell Scott (who shamelessly steals and runs away with the movie with a sublimely odd character that answers the unasked question: what if Marvin the Martian were a lovestruck Nazi?). A great many others would achieve greater fame later: Alison Janney (The West Wing), Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2), Michael Emmerson (Lost), and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor – read The Dork Report review). And there’s still room in the soufflé for wildcards like Scottish comedian Billy Connolly and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous (but still funny) skit.

Sadly, The Impostors was not nearly as much of a critical or commercial success as Tucci and Scott’s acclaimed Big Night (1996), which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that Tucci has only directed two films since (Joe Gould’s Secret in 2000 and Blind Date in 2008). Let’s hope he and Big Night co-director Scott conspire again soon in the future.


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