Dec 2, 2012

Blogathon: The Water Engine

I've got seriously behind on November's Underrated 90's blogathon thanks to illness and deadlines, but the reviews for the last two films I've been able to watch (Mike hasn't sent me his selection) are coming.  Here's the first...

Here's what AJ said about his selection for me:

"David Mamet is my favorite writer. It's hard to execute a style that sounds absolutely nothing like how real people speak and still absorb you in its structure/timing/verbiage, but Mamet does so like a pro. But speech is only part of the equation, and thankfully, the man can tell a damn good story to boot. The Water Engine is much in the style of Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner and Homicide, in that it's a con game that explores mankind's penchant for evil more than it engages in frivolous cinematic sleight-of-hand. It's a fascinating subversion of the American Dream, wherein a nobody schmoe with a great, revolutionary idea is targeted by forces that represent capitalism at its darkest and most sinister. It can be a heavy story at times, but The Water Engine still flies, thanks to the quality of writing and superb ensemble cast."
Dir: Stephen Schacter
I'm a big fan of David Mamet for the reasons that AJ enumerates in his introduction above, but also because, not quite uniquely  but certainly more scarcely than should be the case among writers, you get the sense that Mamet simply LOVES language, that he likes to play with it, to craft it and mould it into new, jagged edged forms.  That's on display to some degree in The Water Engine, but so are some of the drawbacks of Mamet's style.

With any writer who has a very particular style there is a danger that all their characters will end up talking the same way, and while that's not usually such a problem for Mamet as it is for, say, Quentin Tarantino - who can only write, it seems, in his own voice - it was something I felt more than a few times in The Water Engine, especially as people line up against William H Macy's main character, who has invented an engine that runs solely on water, to try and take his creation away from him for their own purposes.  The dialogue is as strong as you'd expect from Mamet, and the cast, largely composed of the writer's stock company, does good work, but there is a bit of a feeling of a singular voice.

This feeling is accented by the fact that the film's origins as a stage piece are all too evident.  Director Stephen Schacter isn't able to open the film up as you might hope, but neither does he capture the sort of pressing claustrophobia that can really work for thrillers that originated on stage.  The best thing he does is to really put the performances front and centre and use them as the engine of the film.

The performances are where the film excels.  Macy is as fantastic as ever as the slightly befuddled ordinary Joe who just happens to have invented something so extraordinary that it's dangerous, and he's a solid and sympathetic centre for the film, without ever being the weak or stupid character that he could easily have been written as.  I still think of John Mahoney as Martin from Fraiser, so to see him playing such a manipulative and nasty character as the lawyer that Macy goes to to protect his idea is still a bit of a shock, but as ever when he's playing nastier characters (think too of Say Anything), Mahoney's way of letting the true personality of his character show through a more approachable exterior is very effective. In one excellent scene Mahoney performs as if he's offended by Macy's suggestion that he was involved in the ransacking of the lab where the engine had been stored, it's a good performance, but easy to see through, and Mahoney plays those layers really well.  Also excellent is Mamet regular Joe Mantegna, as a lawyer/enforcer who chillingly lays out for Macy just how limited his options are.  Mantegna too has the knack of appearing both helpful and threatening in the same moment, and the scene in which he first meets Macy is a taut little delight.

For me though, the film runs out of steam in the last twenty minutes, when it goes towards some very by the numbers thriller tropes and cuts down on dialogue (even if some of it sounds a bit samey at times, the dialogue is the true star here).  This also means that a lot of the ideas that AJ rightly points out in his introduction above also fall by the wayside a bit.  This isn't one of my favourite Mamet thrillers, in fact it might be his weakest, but David Mamet having a little bit of an off day is still more interesting than most writers on their best day.  The Water Engine is worth seeing, but I'd suggest it for fans rather than newcomers.

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