Movie: American Buffalo (1996)

“That dyke cocksucker.”  This curious statement is just one of many made by Dustin Hoffman as part of the verbal diarrhea he spews throughout 1996’s American Buffalo

This is a movie adaptation of the famous David Mamet play.  As always, his dialogue has a certain profane spark to it which you will either finding intriguing or highly off-putting.  There’s also the slightly stilted way his characters phrase things.  For me, his scripts read not like how people talk in reality, but instead uncannily convey an aspect of real conversation I can’t seem to put my finger on.  It’s like how a great impersonation is never something anybody would mistake for the original.  Instead, a successful impersonation channels something that is unique to the subject at hand.

The stage play is barely opened up for the movie adaptation, though this didn’t feel airless to me.  It all takes place in a large shop Dennis Franz owns in a rundown part of an unidentified city.  His establishment is filled with disorganized junk.  I have read a couple of reviews where critics feigned disbelief such a store could exist.  I can confirm they do, and in great numbers.  I almost feel like I somehow have been in the exact store Franz owns here.  And, every time I wander into such a place, I wonder who would ever set foot in there and, if they did, what they hoped to find.  And, if a customer was looking for something, how would they ever find it?  Strange I always find myself thinking this in such a situation, while I am in the store and usually at a loss as to what brought me into it.

Only three characters wander in and out and around the shop.  The third is Sean Nelson, as a kid who clearly idolizes Franz.  I’m not sure why he does exactly.  He also respects Hoffman, though obviously not as much.  So he basically hangs around the shop a lot, listening to the ramblings of two men old enough to be his father, and who have clearly done little of note in their lives.  Mostly, Nelson runs errands, such as getting bacon for Hoffman from the nearby diner, which the older man disposes of in a way that is weird, funny and which I like to think was improvised.

The film also makes Nelson a bit of a cypher for most of the runtime.  The kid appears dedicated to Franz, but I noticed something early on that suggested he may be pocketing some of the money the older man gives him for diner runs.  There will also be the titular and highly valuable nickel, which Franz believes a customer stole from his shop.  Eventually, Nelson happens to have a buffalo nickel he tries to sell to Franz.  Is the kid trying to sell back to Franz a nickel he stole from him?

What drives the plot is Franz’s idea to break into the apartment of the guy he believes stole from him and get the nickel back.  But not anything by the band Nickelback, as nobody wants that.  Hoffman connives his way into this operation, but insists Nelson not be part of it.  That Franz even humors the idea of Hoffman providing assistance shows a serious lapse in judgement.  Then again, this is a man who runs a store that seems to serve no conventional purpose.

But Franz does have enough sense to bring in another person, one who seems to be highly competent.  We only have the assessments of the three actors here to go on, as the mysterious Fletcher is essentially the Godot of his piece, somebody the others talk about all the time but who never makes an appearance.

That is, unless Fletcher is one of the people we see in extreme close-ups in footage of a poker game which is interspersed in the opening credits.  Really, is there anything more essentially Mamet than a poker game?  One of the players is only seen by her long fingernails, so I assume this is the equally absent “Ruthie” whom Hoffman so memorably described in my opening sentence.

The performances are top-notch, as one would expect, and which is necessary for a movie with only three roles.  Franz especially excels in his performance, and his increasing exasperation at Hoffman’s seeming inability to stop talking made me laugh a great deal more than I expected from this film.

As for Hoffman, I felt he plays things a bit too broadly, though it is hard to deny the power of his performance.  He is a whirling dervish of nervous energy and profanity.  I think a new source of alternative clean energy could be Hoffman’s insecurity.  I can imagine entire cities powered for years from it.  He’s like if Ratso Rizzi somehow lived on to see middle age and evolved into something even less appealing. 

American Buffalo is not the best presentation I have seen of Mamet’s work, but it is intense and intriguing.  It is also far funnier than I expected, but I think that has to do with how I regarded some of Hoffman’s more outrageous statements and Franz’s irritation towards him.  Really, an equally valid reaction would be to not laugh at all.  Regardless, this is a very good film and recommended for those who might be interested.

Dir: Michael Corrente

Starring Dennis Franz, Dustin Hoffman, Sean Nelson

Watched on Twilight Time blu-ray