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A Nickel Offense

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Brian Hamill

School's In: Teacher Dustin Hoffman delivers a lesson in nihilism to Donny (Dennis Franz) and Sean Leonard in "American Buffalo."

David Mamet's famed 'American Buffalo' short-changed by new film version

By Richard von Busack

DURING THE course of a single day, tough but good-hearted junk dealer Don (Dennis Franz) plots out "the thing"--which is how, in what he hopes is criminal slang, he refers to a retaliatory burglary he's planning. Don sold a buffalo nickel--hence the title of David Mamet's breakthrough 1975 play American Buffalo--to a collector for too little, and it's driving him nuts.

Armed with the collector's address, Don is planning to strike, using as his accomplice a local kid, Bobby (Sean Nelson). Enter Teacher (Dustin Hoffman), who, with a torrent of words, talks his way into "the thing," almost persuading Don to embrace Teacher's utter nihilism, his belief that there is no trust in the world--that all that matters is sharp business sense.

In 21 years, the hard language of American Buffalo has been freely borrowed by movies and theater. The shock effect is gone, and now the play seems almost like a poem, built on the drumming rhythm of people talking to hear themselves talk. Mamet draws on Hemingway's and/or Gertrude Stein's idea of the impact of words repeated and stressed, as in Teacher's hectoring, "If you see the least chance, you don't take that chance."

The three-character play is set inside a secondhand shop, and there it stays for the film version, with the exception of a few exteriors shot in the interesting squalor of urban Rhode Island (director Michael Corrente made his debut in the Providence-based Federal Hill). Thomas Newman's music is almost a character in itself, featuring distant, distorted harmonicas and the growling Middle Eastern drone of a violin.

Still, American Buffalo doesn't have power, probably because Hoffman doesn't connect with the other actors. As the nervous little criminal whose hands are always searching--for a weapon or something to shoplift--Hoffman is in constant hypnotic motion. He is a one-man show, overriding the nuances of Sean Leonard (Fresh), the eye in this storm of words.

Franz, of NYPD Blue, is one of the best actors on TV, but except for a few brief moments, he's rather indistinct on the big screen. The film is cut rapidly to match the pace of Teacher's verbal beating down of Don. That the two main performances don't seem to be taking place on the same stage may be due to the editing. We need to see both Don and Teacher, one reacting to the other, to understand when Teacher's drilling at long last hits a vein.

Corrente's heavy reliance on close-ups interrupts the flow of Teacher's monologue. It's as if the director set up obstacles to the performance. By the end of this terminally stage-bound film, the cathartic rage of Teacher as he trashes the joint looks more like a typically speedy way of striking the set.


American Buffalo (R; 88 min.), directed by Michael Corrente, written by David Mamet, photographed by Richard Crudo and starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson.

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From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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