Published November 19, 2001
Somewhere near the beginning of Heist, Joe Moore (Gene Hackman), one of those immensely clever thieves with which the cinematic underworld seems to abound, is seen explaining how he did something that he insists he was not smart enough to do. “I just thought of a guy who was smarter than I was and then imagined what he would do.” That turns out to have been more or less exactly what David Mamet did in thinking up Joe Moore, who — stop reading now if you plan to see the film and want to savor such surprise (not much) as its ending may have to offer you — is always way ahead not only of the cops but of his gangland rivals and his own accomplices. This line, then, is his little post-modern joke. He knows that we know that he knows that these are nothing like real people — let alone real criminals, who are generally quite stupid. Instead, they are counters in a game of greed and treachery which we are meant to be happy to let Mamet play with his hypothetically smarter self.
I don’t know about you, but I like the people in movies to be, like people in real life, capable of being surprised. It is when life sneaks up behind us and smacks us with the wet fish of love or tragedy or joy or bitterness that we are at our most human. And it is in how we respond to life’s little surprises that we define ourselves in the eyes of others. But Joe Moore is a man whom nothing can surprise. “You know me, baby,” he says to his much younger wife, Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon): “I don’t tie my shoes without a back-up plan.” Already, by this time, it has been made clear to us that Joe will always have a back-up plan, so the only thrill the movie has to offer is in waiting to see how, each time his enemies seem to get the upper hand, Joe’s back-up plan, or Joe’s master plan, will put Joe back on top.
Even when Fran betrays him — and all the way through we are meant not to be sure whether she has betrayed him or only pretended to have done so as part of Joe’s plan — the smile on Joe’s face tells us that, yeah, he’d already planned on this too. In other words, it’s not the betrayal that matters, as it would in real life. It’s that Joe knows. In fact, Joe always knew. He was just waiting for the audience to catch up with him. Meanwhile, we really have no idea why his enemies are his enemies, or why Fran would betray him with a younger but much less prepossessing thief, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), when there is no obvious attraction between them. Danny DeVito plays a sort of fence who, for reasons that are never clearly spelled out for us (Mamet obviously has no interest in the subject), has the power to make Joe, against his will, pull one last job. The job to end all jobs. Where have I heard something like this before?
It’s the Swiss job. But, as Mametian budgets don’t run to shooting on foreign locations, the Swiss job is actually pulled off in Boston, which is where, fortunately, Joe happens to be anyway. At least, he’s there until he gets his share of the Swiss gold, hides it with characteristic cleverness, and sails off to the Carribean on his handsome sailing yacht with the shiny brass fittings. Actually, the camera’s lingering on the shiny brass fittings is just another one of the deutero-Mamet’s sleights of hand. Don’t be silly! Would the mastermind do anything as obvious as that? But then it’s not as if the gold turns out to be disguised decking, or masts or cutlery or fish-hooks either. Since nothing cleverer than hiding the gold in plain sight occurs to Mamet’s smarter self, he just puts it, well, somewhere else. The point is that Joe knows and nobody else guesses, so the illusion of Joe’s ever-superior cleverness is preserved.
This game has no charm for me. And I find Mamet’s patented weird-clever dialogue more weird than clever. Occasionally he gets off a good line or two, as when someone at a bar tells Fran that the whisky she is drinking will rot her stomach. “Yeah,” she says, “but I get to drink it first.” Once Joe’s sidekick Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) tells Jimmy, who claims (with considerable understatement, I should say) not to be a religious man, of a guy he knew in the army who was always a-praying and who kept his Bible close to his heart. And what do you think? One day that Bible stopped a bullet “that woulda just tore up his heart.” Bobby pauses and then says: “Yeah, and if he’d-a had another Bible to put in front of his face he’d-a been alive today.” Jimmy doesn’t laugh much. Nobody in a Mamet movie laughs much, unless it is bitter, ironic laughter. If his people laughed more they would be more like people, and his movies would be the better for it.
But of course they don’t laugh because they are deadpanning the author’s jokes for him, not making them, or listening to them, themselves. Most of the weird-clever stuff consists of what are meant to be snappy comebacks to conventional conversational banalities. Thus: “Nobody lives forever/ Frank Sinatra gave it a shot.” Or “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.” Huh? Even when the Baroque metaphors sort of come off, we are more conscious of the fact that this is not something that anyone but David Mamet would ever actually have said. “I’ll be as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton,” says Jimmy Silk to Joe. “I don’t want you to be as quiet as an ant pissing on cotton,” says Joe fiercely. “I want you to be as quiet as an ant not even thinking about pissing on cotton.” Yeah, old Mamet can think up some pretty good lines. But I wish he’d use them in a stand-up routine instead of going to all the trouble of making a movie just to put them in.