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The Spanish Prisoner
1997 - PG - 110 Mins.
Director: David Mamet
Producer: Jean Doumanian
Written By: David Mamet
Starring: Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara, Felicity Huffman
Review by: Marc Eastman
   
“She is a peacock in everything but beauty.” Oscar Wilde - ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

I’ve used that quote in a movie review before, though in a wildly (ha) different way, but the quote kept popping in my mind as I watched ‘The Spanish Prisoner’. I’m not even precisely sure how to apply it. It’s a mystery in everything but the fact that you know absolutely everything that’s going to happen. It’s intelligent in everything but the level of mental processes required. It’s entertaining in everything apart from boring the bloody hell out of you. It’s a good movie in everything but... peacock?

Actually, I suppose it is a good movie insofar as everything peacock... or something. Peacock, somehow, is an apt description, because it certainly looks great, but it’s got nothing else. Well, I liked Steve Martin actually, and Campbell Scott was not horrible.

The film seems actually to be some sort of bizarre experimental piece. Suppose we made a mystery movie, somehow rather in the grand tradition of the best mysteries, and with a wildly elaborate scheme driving the thing, but simply told the audience everything we possibly could every step of the way. Suppose we actually introduced the characters as ‘the guy who is obviously involved in the scheme’, ‘the girl who is obviously involved in the thing’, ‘the other girl who is...’, etc. Suppose the scheme itself was completely transparent from the very start, and really all the movie does is walk along a well-paved road littered with signposts. Would it still be an interesting movie? I can’t speak for anyone else, obviously, and the movie has met with much critical praise, but my answer is a bewildered no.

Only slightly less irritating than the plot is the absolutely absurd dialogue. It’s a positively garish form of banter and patter that harkens back to Marx Brothers movies (without being funny of course), makes everyone sound like they’re doing Walter Winchell impressions, and only serves to cause the audience to think of reasons it worked in ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ and doesn’t work here. At one point Steve Martin’s character apologizes for being gauche. Would that the movie had the same sense. There is actually only one line of dialogue in the entire film that doesn’t come across as simply Mamet thinking he was really neat, and that was when one character said, ‘Crikey!’

Joe Ross (Campbell Scott - ‘Roger Dodger’, ‘The Impostors’) is apparently at once the dumbest man to ever walk the earth, and the inventor of a marvelous formula that..., does something really amazing. I’ve forgotten quite frankly. I believe it has to do with the ozone layer, i.e. helping to restore same, but it’s easy to forget, and could hardly be less relevant. At one point it is referred to as a widget, and that the movie ever calls it anything else is virtually the only transition from concept to actualization you’ll see attempted. There is a page of doodles somewhere from the first stages of Mamet’s thought process, and on that page it says ‘Widget’. At some point further on in development, Mamet said, “let’s change ‘Widget’ to ‘Secret Formula’”. He avoided any other changes to what is listed on that page of doodles.

At any rate, Joe Ross works for some rather large, nameless corporation, and while in their employ he has invented a secret formula for doing whatever it is that will make simply oodles of cash. We enter the story with Ross and certain company members on a business/vacation trip to a random and meaningless tropical island resort. We’re here to meet some backers, and convince them of the solid lock we have on the oodles of cash.

Also from the company is Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon - Mamet’s wife, and thus curiously appearing in many of his movies and very little else). Susan’s is a non-descript, vaguely secretarial position which somehow rates a go at this trip, apparently so that she can keep an eye on Joe.

We soon meet Julian Dell (Steve Martin). He’s a very rich man of undisclosed interestingness, who may or may not have gotten off a seaplane. Our man Joe meets up with Mr. Dell in a ‘chance encounter’ that is so horrifically-obvious a staging of events, choreographed with the help of Ms. Ricci, it could only be thought to fool most (not all mind you) anyone with a lifetime pass to the short bus. What’s obvious from the get go is that whoever is working the con (and you know there’s one coming) is completely convinced that our man’s a moron.

A few minutes later (moviewise), Ms. Ricci, while sitting at the patio bar of the resort, holds up a sign that reads, ‘Joe. You must come and encounter me speaking with this woman, so that later you will remember meeting her!’ Well, no, but yes.

Meanwhile, Joe is having some doubts about the company, and his guarantee of financial success. After all, it’s his invention. But, it’s a semi-vacation, and soon Joe is flying back to New York, Susan puppy-doglike at his side, and a date for dinner with Mr. Dell on his calendar.

Now, being that the movie never pretends to be anything other than a mystery, we know that sooner or later the secret formula is going to turn up missing. What I’ve related so far brings us to approximately the twenty-five minute mark in the film. Armed only with what you know so far, I defy you to convince me that you don’t know absolutely everything that’s going to happen, and I haven’t even been as obvious as the movie. Oh, you may not know who’s behind it all necessarily, but the movie doesn’t take much interest in that anyway. That’s just trivia really, and much like saying you don’t know that at the end they’ll be on a boat.

And the main thing is, after all that, I wanted to like it. Even as I sat there with it being horrible at me, and frankly it seemed to be doing so with malice aforethought, I wished I could like it. I liked Steve Martin quite a bit, and Campbell Scott was begging me to like him, though I couldn’t quite manage it. It had a wonderful overall tone, and some fine attention to pacing. I would have to admit that it was even well directed, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was well-directed rubbish.

I have to concede that perhaps there is something I’m missing here. Perhaps it is homage to something. To what in particular I cannot say, though it is clearly a sort of homage to film noir. The sort of homage one might get from a moderately astute highschooler who stumbled upon an old black-and-white movie, and whose chief reaction was ‘Cool!’, but an homage nonetheless.

I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, recommend this to you, because whatever reservations I tried to convey along with that with recommendation, I don’t think I could ever escape the nagging feeling that I was calling you stupid.

Whatever this movie is trying to be, it certainly has the beauty of the thing down, but like the peacock, nothing else.
 
Movie Guru Rating
Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better. Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better.
  2 out of 5 stars

 
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