One of the major reasons many of David Mamet's plays and scripts haven't translated well to the big screen is because his words often get lost in all the action. (As a writer, Mamet's greatest strength is dialogue.)
But in the past 10 years, Mamet has taken matters into his own hands, directing the 1994 movie version of his stage drama "Oleanna" and filming a handful of movies based on original screenplays, including the new thriller, "The Spanish Prisoner."Unfortunately, in almost every instance, Mamet the director has chosen to mute his casts' performances, resulting in some unnaturally stiff and off-putting acting that distracts from the wordplay. And the problem's never been as glaring as in "The Spanish Prisoner," which sounds and looks at times as if it's a "Robotic Theater Production."
Leading this "March of the Wooden Men" is Campbell Scott, who plays Joe Ross, the inventor of a revolutionary business formula cryptically called "The Process." Despite the assurances of his boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), Joe is nervous about turning his discovery over to the company.
Enter Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a charismatic but mysterious businessman who befriends Joe and persuades him to protect his interests - which includes retaining a lawyer to look over his contract with Klein.
Unsure of who to trust, Joe becomes increasingly paranoid about his business and personal dealings, which leads to tragic consequences for Joe's longtime friend and associate George (Ricky Jay).
Suddenly wanted for questioning in George's murder, Joe is forced to turn to Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife), a secretary with more than just a professional interest in him, for help.
It's an interesting premise with more than a few Hitchcockian overtones. And because of that, it's easy to see why Mamet wants his actors to be so aloof - to make the audience wary of character motivations. But the strategy really backfires here.
Of the actors, only Martin and Gazzara show any real warmth.
"The Spanish Prisoner" is rated PG for violent slapping and brief gunplay, a couple of mild profanities, brief gore and use of one racial epithet.