Story of a charmless man

David Mamet's tale of middle-class crisis is self-consciously provocative

<strong>Edmond (18)</st

When David Mamet's one-act play Edmond premiered in 1982, it must have felt short, sharp and shocking, but only the first of these adjectives applies to the film version. This adaptation, scripted by Mamet, is no failure; it bristles with seediness, and feels like the flip side to the sappy American Beauty, another tale of white middle-class crisis. But its self-consciously provocative observations on race and gender belong to an earlier era, lending it the quaintness of a period piece. And quaintness is the last thing you want in a film about a racist, misogynistic murderer.

The charmer in question is Edmond (William H Macy), a white-collar working stiff in a generically noirish city. Mamet is never big on back story, but one look at Macy, with his crumpled saddlebag of a face, tells us everything about Edmond's disappointing life. He plods out of the office one night and into the clutches of a tarot reader, who tells him: "You are not where you belong." This prompts him to leave his wife and embark on a bumbling quest for gratification.

At a bar, he meets a smooth-talking stranger (Joe Mantegna) who pontificates about how African Americans have it easy. Edmond nods along, then accepts the man's advice to visit a nearby gentlemen's establishment, where his woes really begin.

In Mamet's world, which, after thirty-odd years of his writing, feels more cosy than treacherous, there is no division between business and pleasure, as we are reminded by Edmond's comically doomed attempts to get his rocks off. The poor sap visits strip joints and massage parlours expecting to engage in balanced transactions. He tries to pay a prostitute with a credit card, expects a stripper to give him change from a twenty, and expresses shock at being ripped off by shifty card sharps. Eventually, Edmond snaps, lashing out at a would-be mugger and raining racist epithets down on his attacker along with the body blows. This heralds a kind of rebirth, as social etiquette is stripped away and he advances towards his realisation that "every fear hides a wish".

The picture's inappropriate air of warm familiarity may be explained by the fact that it represents a reunion for Mamet's gang. The cast features his loyal collaborators Macy, Mantegna and Rebecca Pidgeon (who is also Mamet's wife). And while Stuart Gordon seems an offbeat choice of director, his finest achievement being the horror gem Re-Animator, he too has a history with Mamet, having directed the 1974 premiere of Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Gordon brings his horror background to bear in some gory violence, which gives the film an eerie quality, as do the parable-like story and the picaresque structure.

Despite the rhetorical bombast that gradually overwhelms Edmond and turns it into more of a theorem than a film, at least Gordon does what any director should do with the dialogue: he simply lays off the cutting and lets us listen to it. I like to imagine that the most innocuous conversations in the playwright's household are conducted in finest Mamet-ese, in which the speaker seems constantly to be reformulating his or her thoughts according to some mysterious agenda. I can just see Mamet at the breakfast table: "And I put this proposition to you now. Could you pass the, yes, the butter, the butter there, do you see? Do you - you do see, don't you?" I could listen to those rhythms all day. It's just disappointing that, in Edmond, it's a case of talking loud but saying nothing.

Pick of the week

Zodiac (15)
dir: David Fincher
I saw this again last week: thriller of the year, until further notice.

Flanders (18)
dir: Bruno Dumont
War, sex and brutality in a typically gruelling work from the director of 'Humanité.

Sketches of Frank Gehry (12A)
dir: Sydney Pollack
A revealing documentary about the architect. There's even input from his shrink.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror