Netflix Movie Month: "Glengarry Glen Ross" Review

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An examination of the machinations behind the scenes at a real estate office.
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Rating: R (language)
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: October 2, 1992
Directed by: James Foley
Genre: Drama

In "Glengarry Glen Ross," the owners of a shoddy real estate investment company want to motivate their staff. Sales have been lagging because it's been hard to convince people to invest in properties that are fairly undesirable, which means that the salesmen have to use questionable tactics to seal each deal. The company hires a slimy management consultant named Blake (Alec Baldwin) who comes up with a sales competition in which the first-place winner gets a car and the second-place winners get steak knives. Those who come in third and fourth place get fired. Because the office only has four salesmen, the stakes are really high for all of them. The salesmen are Roma (Al Pacino), Levene (Jack Lemmon), Aaronow (Alan Arkin), and Moss (Ed Harris).

Those stakes are particularly high for Levene, a has-been salesman with a dwindling bank account and a hospitalized daughter. He runs to office manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey) to try and cajole him into giving him a list called the Glen Ross leads, a coveted list of prospective investors. Williamson, every bit as slimy as Blake, only agrees to give over the names if Levene will pay him for it. The broke Levene can't come up with the money, so he leaves Williamson's office dejected, knowing he'll be fired. While this is happening, Aaronow is listening to a livid Moss hatch a plan to steal the list and sell it to a competitor.

The next morning, Roma and Levene get lucky with sales, but soon, the presence of a detective dampens their spirits as it is revealed that the office was robbed overnight. The obvious choice of culprit would be either Aaronow or Moss, since they were talking about it the day before. However, everyone in "Glengarry Glen Ross" is so desperate to make a sale or get revenge on others that it is entirely possibly that it was committed by someone else. As each salesman gets his turn to talk to the detective, the tension in the office becomes incredibly thick. Nobody is counted out as the thief, but nobody is viewed as being completely innocent, either.

The film is the screen adaptation of the award-winning play by David Mamet, who also wrote the screenplay. The play has gone down as almost legendary for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the deluge of profanity the actors utter on stage. The excessive profanity was a big reason the producers of the film had trouble obtaining financial backing. The big studios thought that the vulgar language and the fact that the majority of the film takes place in a bland office would turn off moviegoers. To the contrary, many fans of the film, which has reached cult status, loved the profanity and the depressing setting. They both set the tone for the film, which is supposed to be bleak and somewhat unrelenting.

The cussing in the film is fairly epic, and it would likely sound bad coming out of the mouth of lesser actors. Fortunately, this cast is beyond stellar, which is why the curse-laden dialogue sounds almost lyrical rather than profane. It may sound counterintuitive to say that profanity doesn't sound completely profane, but that is a testament to the actors, who say their lines so conversationally that the cussing isn't as jarring as it could be. Oh sure, it is still plenty jarring, but it could have been far worse. Instead, the dialogue and all its four-letter words really help the audience see how desperate these salesmen are and how low they have each sunk, even the top sellers. Lemmon, in particular, really stands out, and Baldwin chews the scenery in a role that was created specifically for the movie in order to give it an extra punch that the play didn't have.

Director James Foley does a great job of making the film seem claustrophobic, so that the audience almost feels as if it is in the fluorescent lighting of the drab office. Foley was previously attached to the film and then dropped out, as did Baldwin and Pacino. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine anyone else directing, and it is equally hard to see anyone but Baldwin and Pacino in their respective roles. The fact that each of them found their way back to the project and accepted substantial pay cuts speaks volumes to how much each loved the script and respected the project. This all comes out in their performances, which are as sharp and masterful as the Mamet play, perhaps even more so.

Rating: 4 out of 5