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Hollywood’s current notion of “creativity” is imitating Quentin Tarantino instead of Steven Spielberg. Feeling Minnesota, the directorial debut of failed actor-painter Steven Baigelman, compounds everything that’s meretricious about Tarantino’s work—hyped-up violence, nonstop profanity, mindless sensationalism—without exhibiting a trace of that filmmaker’s gifts for dynamic pacing and eliciting vivid performances. Feeling Minnesota’s press material claims that the screenplay “is very close to Baigelman’s heart and one he feels that everyone can relate to…,” an assumption belied by the opening-day matinee audience I observed, which exited the theater as morose as departees from a funeral home.
Following a credit sequence depicting the abusive rivalry of two young brothers, writer-director Baigelman leaps 20 years forward to a shot of a woman in a wedding gown pursued along a railroad track by three thugs. Freddie (Cameron Diaz), the prospective bride, has been strong-armed into punitive wedlock with Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio), one of the now-grown brothers, who has embezzled money from Red (Delroy Lindo), a mobster. When Jjaks (Keanu Reeves), Sam’s jailbird sibling, turns up at the wedding reception, the wretched Freddie hits on him and, before the cake is cut, they’re off screwing in a bathroom. The remainder of the movie chronicles the battling brothers’ blood-spattered attempts to hang on to Freddie and Red’s money.
All the elements of Feeling Minnesota are recycled, from the title itself (credited to a Soundgarden song but obviously echoing the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona), to Blue Velvet’s severed ear, to Pulp Fiction’s oddly coifed black gangster, to Bonnie and Clyde’s outlaw lovers on the run, to the pugnacious male siblings who inhabit Sam Shephard’s plays. But these borrowings fail to cohere. Like rummage-sale rejects, they remain on a shelf (as has the film itself for nearly a year) without purpose or context.
Any movie in which Reeves turns in the most satisfying principal performance is in deep trouble, but the callow, scruffy actor stands out from the rest of the ensemble, if only because he’s too inexpressive to contribute to the prevailing mood of beastliness. Diaz, whose beauty and high spirits sparked The Mask, is victimized by Baigelman’s demeaning dialogue and direction. “I look like shit,” she observes at one point, and indeed she does, with greasy, crudely dyed hair and “slut” tattooed on her arm. (The film’s misogyny reaches its apex in the final scene, when Freddie achieves her “dream”: flashing her tits in a Las Vegas topless revue.) D’Onofrio’s role largely requires him to punch, sweat, and bleed. Several cameos sparkle through the grunge: Tuesday Weld, porcine but still exuding her erstwhile magic, as the brothers’ ill-fated mother, Courtney Love as a sympathetic Nancy Walkerish waitress, and Levon Helm as a benevolent Bible salesman.
Perhaps animator Chuck Jones could have meep-meeped some energy into this coarse, cartoonish comedy-drama, but Baigelman hasn’t a clue about how to compose and edit action sequences or time dialogue. Relentlessly ugly to watch—cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s drab images of ramshackle houses and motel rooms seem to be filtered through the brackish waters of a fish tank—and callously contemptuous of its characters and audience, Feeling Minnesota is an experience one could only wish on an enemy. The staff of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, which trained Baigelman at its Director’s Lab, and co-producer Danny DeVito should hang their heads in shame.
Apart from an emphasis on oily hair and beard stubble, and enough repetitions of “fuck,” in its noun, verb, and adjective forms, to slay a theaterful of grannies, little connects the unabashedly squalid Feeling Minnesota with American Buffalo, a prestigious adaptation of David Mamet’s critically acclaimed 1975 play. Meticulously performed by a three-member cast—Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, and young Sean Nelson—and reverently directed by Michael Corrente (Federal Hill), American Buffalo is a seamlessly realized chamber piece. It’s also derivative, banal, and something of a yawn.
Mamet’s plays anthologize the thematic and stylistic concerns of midcentury theater. His work co-opts Arthur Miller’s social moralism, Samuel Beckett’s existential nihilism, Edward Albee’s blunt symbolism, and Harold Pinter’s linguistic trickery. This highbrow stew makes theater critics, drama teachers, and actors salivate, but I’ve never found it to be terribly nourishing. With its overworked themes—the incompatibility of free enterprise and humane values, the brutal undercurrents of male bonding—and flamboyant star-making roles for performers, Mamet’s writing is technically impressive but curiously unaffecting.
American Buffalo’s skeletal plot serves as a vehicle for Mamet’s true interests—language and character. Junk shopowner Donny (Franz) undersells a buffalo-head nickel to a customer and, after discovering its true value, enlists his teenage gofer Bobby (Nelson) to help him steal it back. When Donny’s friend Teach (Hoffman) gets wind of this scheme, he attempts to cut Bobby out and participate in the robbery himself. The conflict of loyalty versus personal gain builds to an act of violence and the partial destruction of Donny’s store, accompanied by portentous fadeout dialogue to ensure that we register Mamet’s views about competition (“We all live like cavemen”) and the bleakness of unrestrained capitalism (“There is nothing out there”).
“Action talks,” Teach observes early in the film, but talk is action in Mamet’s plays. Eighty-eight minutes of torrential verbiage follow, a rhythmic orchestration of tautologies, non sequiturs, and mock epigrams. Considerable craft is required to create such cascading dialogue, but once we catch on to the playwright’s rhetorical devices—which takes less than 15 minutes—the cumulative effect becomes numbing. (I had to struggle at several points to keep from cat-napping.) In live theater, where the spoken word assumes primacy over images, Mamet’s language is more forceful. (Radio, in fact, is probably his ideal medium; his The Water Engine was initially presented as a radio play before being adapted into a made-for-TV movie.) On-screen, with the performers shot in tight close-ups and yammering in realistic settings, the stylized dialogue feels excessively and unconvincingly contrived. What passes as insightful and gripping onstage is exposed as glib verbal virtuosity and trite moralizing.
Restricting his focus to Donny’s shop and the barren urban street outside—the claustrophobic film was shot in Pawtucket, R.I.—Corrente entrusts American Buffalo to the talents of his actors, and they do not let him down. Unkempt and slovenly attired, Hoffman embodies all of Teach’s neurotic tics. Though his interpretation of the role is more cerebral than Al Pacino’s approach in the original stage production—Pacino has a core of craziness the analytical Hoffman lacks—it’s a solid performance. Franz makes a successful transition from television to the big screen, subtly expressing Donny’s shifting loyalties. Fifteen-year-old Nelson, who scored a remarkable screen debut in Fresh, has the smallest role, but his heartfelt portrayal of the tentative, exploited Bobby challenges and, at times, eclipses the efforts of his veteran colleagues.
Perhaps Mamet, who has directed three movies, notably Homicide, should have made the film himself. He might have been less cowed by the assignment of translating a “classic” play to the screen, and felt freer to take more liberties with the text. Barring that, the producers should have hired a filmmaker with enough vision to invest the project with some cinematic variety, as James Foley did in his 1992 movie of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. In Corrente’s competent but excessively deferential hands, the camera’s merciless eye ruthlessly exposes the play’s mechanical underpinnings. Like Equus, Agnes of God, ’Night Mother, Crimes of the Heart, and other movie versions of stage successes, American Buffalo leaves one questioning the taste and judgment of the theater establishment that originally singled it out for praise.CP