Rated PG - Running time: 1:50 - Released 4/3/98

There are some playwrights whose style requires a deep understanding of their language in order for the actors to pull it off. Shakespeare is a good example of this; in his works, one is forced to give equal consideration to the poetry and the plot. Another such artist is David Mamet, author and director of The Spanish Prisoner. Mamet's style, also seen in Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, and Wag the Dog, is not meant to sound like everyday conversation. It must be given a life of its own.

And that's where this film goes wrong. An intriguing whodunit about murder and computer software, The Spanish Prisoner fails because for the most part, its actors aren't up to the task, and Mamet is unable to educate them properly.

Campbell Scott plays Joe Ross, the designer of a new computer process that will make millions for his company. His new assistant, Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), is helpful and attractive (and even admits to having a crush on him), but Joe feels that his wealthy bosses aren't being upfront about his compensation for designing the process. He meets a friendly tycoon named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) who offers to hook Joe up with an excellent attorney (Ben Gazzara) to check out the situation. But Dell's methods prove suspect, so Joe calls an FBI agent he met on a business trip.

Before Joe knows it, the only copy of the process is missing, his company's attorney is dead, and he is the prime suspect for the murder. In a very exciting cat-and-mouse game, Joe must depend on Susan to help him prove his innocence and recover his stolen property.

Not surprisingly, Steve Martin is the best actor in this movie. Perhaps his experience as a comedian (i.e., working with words) prepared him better for dealing with Mamet's script. Scott is rather wooden, but attempts to hold his own; Pidgeon is lost. She is obviously talented, but out of her league here. Rather than using Mamet's language, she attempts to ignore it — to pass it off as everyday banter. The result is that her acting is undermined; she looks like a hack, and makes Mamet look bad, too. What is surprising is that Mamet, as director, failed to help her.

There are scenes in Glengarry Glen Ross between Ed Harris and Alan Arkin, or Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino, or any other combination you want to mention, where the brilliance of Mamet's script is made crystal clear; after the audience gets used to it, the writing style is as much a presence as any of the characters. Here, thanks to Pidgeon, Scott, and others, it just looks like bad writing and/or directing. This is unfortunate because dialogue aside, it's a fascinating story. **½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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