David Mamet is piling success on success, like card upon card - and
with every move, we watch carefully. Will he manage to balance yet
Yes. "The Spanish Prisoner" is a helluvalotta fun. It's that kind of
movie, and it succeeds as a suspense thriller, even if you do figure
out sooner than the guy next to you how many of these people are
involved in the scheme to part our hero Joe from his secret formula.
All you gotta do is separate the guy from the book in which he has
scribbled all the complicated mathematics that will make somebody a
ton of dough.
Campbell Scott has just the degree of confusion about him to be
credible as the dumb cluck Joe, who trusts once person after the
other, in his attempt just to get things straight. The others - all
of them in on the scheme - play out their roles with total
credibility except for one small slip, which we are meant to catch,
as long as we remain a step ahead of Joe.
The premise of such stories is that we suspend disbelief in their
metaphorical, symbolic, literary or any dimension that fails to
convince us of the genuine danger or likelihood of this happening in
the world as we know it. If we don't buy every single button, it
comes open and what's underneath is ugly.
There is one thing I didn't want to buy in the story, and that was
the red book in which Joe had written out all his complicated
formulas and equations and mathematical magic. Mathematicians just
don't work that way, especially in the age of computers. It's not
that they work on the computer necessarily, but there are pages and
blackboards (yes, still!) and so much in their heads that they need
to translate that the book alone doesn't seem to me to be enough to
create the widget. Also, the secret formula remains so secret, we
never know what it's for - what kind of widget is this thing?
So there I was kvetching about the little problem - which is central
to the entire plot, since it is, after all the book that everybody
wants to get their hands on. And my friend Debra, who likes reading
more than watching movies, explained to me why I'm wrong. The book,
she argued quite plausibly, is what the movie is about: book with a
big B. Books and reading and the magic of creativity are at stake,
and everybody in our society wants to get their hands on them - or on
the talent that creates them.
She obviously thinks Mamet's even smarter than I thought. I was
willing to credit him with a very savvy movie, but yes - Mamet gave
us more. He shows us the creator robbed - and how the robbery works
through trust. And why we shouldn't trust people as slick as Steve
I liked it, and I could go on and on explaining why, but I'll spare
you. This is the first film Mamet has directed with verve, energy -
with something besides that deadpan delivery he prefers, which drives
some of us quite mad. The Spanish Prisoner takes us prisoner and
injects us with a strange truth serum, because nobody can shut up
about the movie after seeing it. See it, or better yet, see it with
your most articulate friend.
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