American Buffalo

on September 13, 1996 by Melissa Morrison
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There's a shock in the opening credit sequence to "American Buffalo"-- the kind of revelatory ugliness that playwright David Mamet (who here adapts his stage drama) is known for--and it's Dustin Hoffman's face looking leathery and creased. The actor who was introduced to the world as young, smooth-cheeked Benjamin in "The Graduate" 29 years ago is now middle-aged. That such a fine actor is using his accumulated celebrity and reputation for projects like "American Buffalo," a low-low-budget, three-man piece focused on acting and words, is heartening. That it turned out so poorly is heartbreaking.
Title sequence aside, the film takes a full 15 of its scant 85 minutes before the audience draws a bead on the plot: The bitter Teach (Hoffman), a junkstore owner named Don (Dennis Franz) and young Bobby ("Fresh's" Sean Nelson) plot a rare-coin burglary. This is where acting and dialogue should flourish, because the motive for this crime is not clear-cut desperation or greed--rather, it's a kind of revenge, a way for Teach and Don to get back at a system in which the coin collector was smart enough to get wealthy, while they remained stuck in the lower-middle class. The immorality of the crime is never an issue among the men. It seems a distinctly American exploration of money and power, and it should have been fascinating to watch. But Mamet's adaptation leaves the story setbound; the only scenes away from Don's junk shop are the initial ones. And, trapped as the audience is in this dusty, cramped place, Mamet's trademark torrent of words becomes claustrophobic. Watching "American Buffalo" becomes the visual equivalent of swimming in molasses. Even Hoffman's Teach, all greasy hair and vitriol, becomes a performance to be endured, not relished. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson. Directed by Michael Corrente. Written by David Mamet. Produced by John Sloss. A Capitol Films production; Goldwyn is releasing stateside. Drama. Rated R for language. Running time: 85 minutes. Screened at the Venice film festival.
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