Listless 'American Buffalo' Review: Even with Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz, the film version of David Mamet's play is a wooden nickel.

September 27, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

There's nothing wrong with "American Buffalo" that a little energy wouldn't have cured. The movie version of the famed David Mamet play turns out to be a glum and dour meander through the slums of the American imagination.

We're in what has so lately become a familiar neighborhood: small-time crime and the non-Rhodes Scholars who commit it and, more importantly, see it as a lifestyle. The geniuses-not at the center (and the edges and on top and below and every other conceivable location) of "American Buffalo" are pawnshop owner Don (Dennis Franz) and a loser ex-con named Teach (Dustin Hoffman). Between them is a kind of acolyte to the lifestyles of the larcenous and incarcerated, a boy named Bobby played by the Sean Nelson so impressive in "Fresh."

The issue is a coin collection evidently possessed by a man in the neighborhood. The possibilities of nickels worth hundreds worms its way into the muddle of violent, shrewd mulch that is Don's brain, and infects it; he communicates not merely the greed but the despair that is at the heart of so much crime to his comrades. They are equally carnally aroused and set about to construct a plan for a boost.

That is at the first level. Underneath, however, other murderous passions have been unleashed. The scurvy Teach is secretly jealous of Don's affection for the boy; he seeks to replace him in Don's affections. Don, meanwhile, is torn by conflict; he is not sure Bobby has the professional talents to pull off the caper and so he is easily seduced by Teach into betrayal; but at the same time, he feels the melancholy yank of guilt. Bobby, not so naive as he initially seems, is well-aware of the plot swirling about him, and in his own way sets out to counter it.

At still another level, this production might be looked upon as a duel of acting styles. Hoffman, replacing Al Pacino who made the role a legend, is all flashy Hollywood stylings: he's Ratso Rizzo with less of a limp and more of an attitude. He gives off the sour odor of paranoia and Oscar nomination-greed. TV guy Franz, of "NY.P.D. Blue," is far more internalized; with his glum face and deeper confidence in the material, he's far more convincing, in the end, than the shriller Hoffman.

But what dogs "American Buffalo" has more to do with the director's vision than faulty performances. Director Michael Corrente -- he did a well-received film called "Federal Hill," which was not screened in Baltimore (and had nothing to do with Baltimore's Federal Hill) -- has taken it as holy screed that each and every one of playwright Mamet's words are to be preserved as if in amber. "American Buffalo" is like the place where words go to die. There's no sense whatsoever of the director cutting for story, or of looking for the visual possibilities of the piece. At the same time, he never releases the hypnotic power of the language, which is, after all, Mamet's strength. Each tic, each verbal quirk and twist, each nuance of attitude is allowed to melt in the mouth, not in the mind. It's a long trip to nowhere.

'American Buffalo'

Starring Dennis Franz and Dustin Hoffman

Directed by Michael Corrente

Released by Goldwyn

Rated R (language)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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