Film Scouts Reviews

"The Spanish Prisoner"

by Karen Jaehne

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David Mamet is piling success on success, like card upon card - and with every move, we watch carefully. Will he manage to balance yet another act?

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 Martin.

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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