by Greg Muskewitz
I am still struggling to understand the relevance of the title Oleanna. As the two characters of this movie often shouted in distress, "I don't understand, I don't understand," I cannot help but feel much the same when asked to write, or simply understand this movie.Facts: David Mamet, as writer and director, adapted his own play of the same name for this movie. It has only two characters, John (William H. Macy), whose name I never heard mentioned throughout the movie, and Carol (Debra Eisenstadt). He is a professor at a college, and she is a student. When Oleanna opens, she is apparently getting her preliminary grades, and the grade she gets in his class is bad, so she goes to speak with him. Many lengthy discussions and arguments follow; everything following, is simply speculation, because I really fail to interpret this. Each time I felt as if we were about to be on to something, or understand whatever was broached or what was confounding, due to extraneous phone calls, it would cut away. Because of Mamet's dictum and usage of language, everything is prolixious. Mamet always is very wordy and such, but here he fronts with a pretense, a pedantic one at that. All of the dialogue is roundabout and repetitive, and still without delivering adept explanation or understanding. Along the way, Mamet may bring up some scattered interesting ideas and concepts (but too drowned out by everything else for me to remember once I left my seat), but without showing them, and by pedagogically disguising them in his Mamet-speak, it renders them undistinguishable and indigestible. By the end, we have the destruction of a man by a student who over-analyzes every word and action surrounding her. There is a relief when at the end he slaps her around. I honestly don't know whose side we should be on, but lost in any developments, I stayed with Macy's character. What I translated from this, was that it was Carol's pure intent to destroy him. By examining this banally, this girl got a bad grade from him, and so she took revenge by putting him in literal positions that by word reads bad, but my understanding and seeing, is harmless. I tend to believe Mamet was trying to say something about comprehension, but since I don't feel I comprehended anything during this, I feel as if he failed at his intent. And I have a hard time believing anyone other ordinary person as myself would be able to understand this either. Who, knowingly, would pay to see this, aside from liking Mamet's work --the reason I sought this out? Being a stage adaptation, and one with a paucity of characters (as opposed to the overload of something like Topsy-Turvy or Cradle Will Rock), there is nothing to serve as a buffer to break up the monotony. The only reason I stayed throughout the entire movie was because I was interested in the "trick ending." I don't think people really pay attention to the surprises and unexpectancies Mamet usually skillfully incorporates into his stories. Look, for example, at The Spanish Prisoner, The Winslow Boy, The House of Games and even State and Main. The revelations and developments he creates by far exceed that of some hopeful eye-peeler M. Night Shyamalan tries to devour us with. And so when the surprise here does roll around at the 80-minute mark, it is a surprise, and, no doubt, a clever one. It is only a disappointment that it could not have been better built towards. All I can say about it, since, for those of you masochists who would actually still be curious to see this, is that when John finally gets his truculence out onto Carol, it is a relief to us all, I hope.
"I don't understand."
Postscript: I did some research after writing my review, and found generally mixed reviews. But in those reviews, the main concept they were trying to emphasize was that this was supposed to get some agitating reaction out of us; to show the difference of the males' and females' take in conjunction to what we all saw and experienced on screen. I can appreciate that a little more, because it does warrant some discussion afterwards, but to get to that point after the movie for discussion's sake, is a boring, sempiternal experience. I personally couldn't understand how a female would take Carol's point-of-view. Certainly neither would be the axiom, but hers is so much further away and exaggerated. Even still, in some of the reviews by women, they ceased to have a connection with her, whereas none of the mens' reviews agreed with her at all. And, as a funny aside, in Scott Renshaw's review, he included that Mamet was upset by feedback in early test screenings when audience members were glad to see Carol slapped around. Oops, I can't change how I feel.Final Verdict: F.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4832&reviewer=172
originally posted: 01/17/01 10:42:36