Review: Glengarry Glen Ross

by Tom Ingram

David Mamet is an irritating blowhard in his non-fiction and, if you believe the things he says about himself, personally rather an asshole. But give the man his credit–he can put together a slick production. Glengarry Glen Ross is his brainchild, originally written for the stage, where it won the Pulitzer Prize. It was adapted into a movie in 1992 with an all-star cast–Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and Jonathan Pryce.

A group of salesmen work at a faltering real estate agency that uses sleazy tactics to sell bad property to unwilling buyers. The salesmen are under constant pressure to sell, but they can’t close many deals because the management won’t provide them with good leads. A consultant is sent in by the owners to give the employees a good yelling-at. He initiates a month-long sales contest: first prize is a new Cadillac, second prize is a set of steak knives, third prize is you’re fired. The “Glengarry leads” are kept locked up in the manager’s office for the survivors of the contest.

In a night of desperation, the salesmen go out to try to make some sales, with very little success. This culminates in a break-in and the theft of the Glengarry leads. The next day, hilarity ensues as the manager tries to find out who did it.

Although it is cinematic enough not to come off as a filmed play, the movie is very obviously adapted from the stage. There is a very small cast consisting of the big-name stars and maybe five extras, and almost all the action takes place on one of two sets. This gives the movie a small, closed feel to it that’s very compelling. There is no “action” as such–the entire story is played out in dialogue which is written in a quick, gritty, and realistic style that is distinctively Mamet. The actors are all obviously having fun with the material, and it’s difficult not to get sucked in.

The only flaw is the ending, which came so abruptly that I wondered if something was wrong. It’s an unsatisfying ending, not just because it doesn’t resolve anything. I’m sure Mamet intended to leave us hanging, but it’s an empty ending that doesn’t mean anything. In fairness, if it were me I’m not sure how I’d end the story, but then I’m not the Pulitzer-winning playwright, am I.

From Dryden to Orwell, great writers consistently show that they don’t really know how they do what they do, they just do it. I judged Mamet harshly on reading part of his book Writing in Restaurants (I was too disgusted to get all the way through). On reflection, I was completely right–sometimes a few months and some further reading makes me reverse or relax critical judgments, but this is not one of those times. He is a pompous, self-absorbed, and at best mediocre non-fiction writer. But unlike many pompous, self-absorbed people, when he turns to creating art he suspends all that, and it becomes all about the plot, the characters, and making the scenes work. Glengarry Glen Ross works, and if nothing else, Mamet deserves respect for that.