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Overall Rating

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Total Crap66.67%

1 review, 3 user ratings

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House of Games
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by Jack Sommersby

"Maladroit Mamet"
1 stars

The late Roger Ebert named this the best picture of its year, but he also did the same with such disasters as "Dark City" and "Monster's Ball," so beware.

In the inane con-artist tale House of Games, which marks the directorial debut of the celebrated playwright David Mamet, who was also responsible for the screenplay, Lindsay Crouse delivers what must be, hands down, the starchiest performance ever given by a lead actress. As the reticent Seattle psychiatrist Margaret Ford, who’s recently penned a best-selling book on the subject of obsessive behavior, Crouse is quintessentially somnolent to the point of catatonia, talking in a droning, monotonous voice akin to someone who’s just gone through a frontal lobotomy, and the fact that she’s supposed to be a brilliant doctor who can break through to the most troubled of patients is nothing short of incredulous; and with the severest of short coiffures so every single hair looks as if it had been permanently lacquered, Crouse is as close to a human mannequin as moviegoers are ever likely to come across, which is a considerable demerit in that she serves as our eyes and ears as someone we’re supposed to have at least some semblances of audience identification with. As the movie opens, Margaret is running through her daily routine of hearing her patients out while remaining clinically detached, with one of them a man in his mid-twenties all frazzled because he says he owes twenty-five-thousand dollars to a man his gambling-junkie self has unwisely played poker with in a seedy downtown establishment; to punctuate his predicament, he brandishes a handgun during his session, insisting he’s considering suicide to put an end to this mess. Margaret convinces him to relinquish the gun, and insists she’ll try her best to rectify the situation; in the late afternoon at her desk reviewing case notes, when she’s looking for a match to light one of her unfiltered Camel cigarettes and is brought up short by sight of the patient’s gun she’s placed there (as if anyone would be even remotely forgetful of something like this), she makes her way to the sparsely-populated “The House of Games,” which doesn’t seem to have served a cocktail since Elvis was alive and is frequented by a well-dressed, handsome shyster known by the name of Mike (Joe Mantegna) who insists Margaret’s patient owes him a mere eight-hundred dollars. But a compromise can be worked out, he insists -- if Margaret will sit in on a poker game Mike’s in the middle of and informs him of an opposing player twitching his ring finger when he’s supposedly bluffing while Mike conveniently makes his way to the men‘s room, which will ensure him victory, he will consider the marker paid in full. This telltale sign is made overtly clear (the man might as well be wearing a clown suit announcing it), but even after Margaret informs Mike of such it turns out the man wasn’t bluffing, and Mike is now into him for six-thousand dollars, which the guilt-laden Margaret, understandably intimidated by the .45 automatic the man has placed on the table pointing at Mike, pulls out her checkbook to pay. As luck would have it, though, Margaret catches sight of this “weapon” dripping water out its nozzle, and seeing that it’s nothing but a water pistol withdraws the check she’s written out; as it turns out, yes, this was a flaw in a scam to deprive her of her money, only after her initial outrage, rather than bolting from the establishment, Margaret finds herself helplessly fascinated by the workings of the “con,” and comes back the next night curious as to the inner-workings of how this is played out as background material for her next book. And soon Margaret is under Mike’s tutelage with an eighty-thousand-dollar on the near horizon.

For House of Games to work, we should be held spellbound by a heroine inserting herself into risky situations and taking chances that could land her in jail, but largely because Crouse’s remoteness freezes our responses and thus closes us out, we’re outside the material more often than not. Granted, Crouse was enormously effective in her cameo as the tormented ex-nurse in the otherwise-mediocre Sidney Lumet-directed The Verdict (which her then-husband Mamet wrote the logic-loophole-ridden screenplay for), but in her subsequent outings in larger roles (Daniel, Iceman) she’s exuded quite the harsh screen presence and hasn’t come off as particularly comfortable in front of the camera. (Later down the line, when she’s pointing a gun at someone and says “Beg for your life, or I’m going to kill you” she might as well be saying “Pay for my lunch, or I’ll stick you with the tab.”) Crouse is no one in particular, and, unfortunately, that also goes for Mantegna, who was nothing short of spectacular as the unscrupulous ace of a real-estate salesman in Mamet’s Broadway smash Glengarry Glen Ross but who’s utterly hamstrung here in his underwhelming interpretation that has absolutely no force. Even with Mantegna and also-Mamet regulars Mike Nussbasum and William H. Macy at the helm, all three have apparently, like Crouse, been instructed to slow down their delivery, which is a major mistake since all three are best when they put their alert reserve to good use. (They seem to have both quicksand in their veins and molasses in their jowls.) Mamet portends to be “unconventional,” trying for his profanity-laden works to transcend the colloquial, but he winds up tergiversating in adhering to a too-familiar story structure that winds up being no greats shakes -- his limited stage plays he’s all too faithfully adapted peter out by about the midway mark, with his trademark ultra-machismo contradictorily employed to repel but tantalize at the same time. Mamet is best known for his pungent dialogue, but the stuff on dire display here by the dubious likes of “Oh, you’re a bad pony, and I’m not going to bet on you” leaves a lot to be desired. Added to which, there’s Margaret’s mentor just happening to be an elderly Austrian-accented mentor for the sole sake of a Sigmund Freud reference, the insistence on claustrophobic medium close-ups with two characters conversing with each other smack-dab in the middle of the screen, and the dire lack of tawdriness and tautness that would make a true noir sing with authenticity. Yes, the cinematography by the phenomenal Juan Ruiz Anchia,(who lit the extraordinary At Close Range the previous year) is undeniably snazzy, and the editing by Trudy Shipp is certainly adroit enough so the running time never feels its actual length. But all in all this a truly deplorable piece of work whose smugness knows no bounds and possesses put-on airs I found repellent, as if anything the story were pushing were even remotely revelatory. Mamet is functioning as a film director for once, but he hasn’t grasped the rudiments of it -- many of the scenes are poorly shaped, and the boxy compositions can’t help but leave the impression that you’re left watching bland late-night television. I didn’t believe a single thing on dreadful display here, especially regarding Margaret being frustratingly slow on the uptake just so the ratiocination-deprived plot can progress. And because Mamet is incapable of bringing something truly cinematic to the table, the writing gains very little from being committed to celluloid. House of Games may be several things, but a genuine movie it’s not.

Check out James Foley's excellent "Confidence" instead.

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originally posted: 08/29/15 22:50:30
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User Comments

8/28/17 danR Ebert/IMDB got it right; great movie. And yes, Dark City too. 5 stars
8/30/15 Jack Great movie. And it's pretty classless to attack a dead person who can't respond. 5 stars
6/27/15 Charles Tatum Lovely film making- Mantegna and Crouse's best work 5 stars
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  14-Oct-1987 (R)



Directed by
  David Mamet

Written by
  David Mamet

  Lindsay Crouse
  Joe Mantegna
  Mike Nussbaum
  Lilia Skala
  J.T. Walsh

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