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House of Games (1987)

May 21, 2010

7/10 Sleights of Hand

Not my favorite thing by Mamet, but still pretty awesome on that first go around.

House of Games is about a successful, yet overworked psychiatrist who is put in the awkward position of having to get involved in one of her patient’s affairs when he informs her that he’s gonna get bumped off overnight if he doesn’t pay up a gambling debt of $25,000 that he doesn’t have. Like any good shrink, she goes to guy to whom the debt is owed, tries to resolve the situation without paying out of pocket and through a course of events finds herself swept up in a world of con men who make their trade by manipulating human behavior.

It’s written and directed by David Mamet, and hopefully we’re all in agreement here that David Mamet is the man. It takes a special kind of writer to turn a story about a handful of aging real estate agents trying to swindle their way into keeping their jobs by swearing a lot and duping every sucker they can get their mitts on, but that’s Glengarry Glen Ross for ya’ and it’s the my favorite script of all time. If you haven’t seen it, see it, but that’s pretty much Mamet’s m.o. with everything he does – writing scripts about asshole guys who take pride in their lives of crime and are so effing cool that it’s impossible to hate ’em no matter how despicable their actions are.

It’s a solid formula, one that Mamet happens to pull off gorgeously more often than not, and while he’s a big reason this movie works as well at does and is so damn easy to get caught up in, he’s also one of the things holding it back.

Same goes for the cast. It’s a vicious circle.

See, when the con is on, this movie is gold, baby. The dialogue gets sharper, the performances get better, and isn’t that the whole draw of this story, to watch these pros do what they do best? It’s a blast watching everything unfold and things get awfully intense when you’re out of the loop despite all the guesses that are kicking around your brain.

But when the con is off and the shrink starts getting all romantic and such with our king con, that’s when I had to drop this from an 8 to a 7.

For the most part, Joe Mantegna ain’t too shabby as Mike and has the great opening line of, “What the fuck is it?” upon introducing himself to the said shrink. But as cool as he is, the guy’s magic only goes so far when it comes to sweet nothings and it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow when some of the garbage lines he drops makes this gal swoon. And as for Lindsay Crouse as Dr. Margaret Ford, she should get her money back from The Acting School of Staring Contests, or at the very least get an honorary degree. The woman seriously makes two different faces throughout the entirety of the movie, one of which last ten seconds and looks like a statue trying to weep, and she’s just a very strange addition to a cast of folks who don’t need to try all that hard to be cool.

Needless to say, this doesn’t help matters any, but thankfully there’s more twists and turns here than you can you shake a stick at and it’s easy to overlook any shortcomings when these grifters are up to no good.

It’s also got Ricky Jay as one of Mike’s associates, and if you don’t know Ricky, trust me, he’s pretty effing cool. He’s also a magician in real life. Don’t find too many cool magicians these days.

The thing is, I’m writing this review after having seen it a second time, well aware of how it was going to end and what was waiting around each corner, and some of the magic is admittedly gone for me. It’s a lot easier to be nitpicky about the flaws when I can already see the big picture and forget about how mind-boggling all this stuff was the first time I was figuring it all out, so a lot of these gripes may very well be null and void for the rest of you’s out there. Nonetheless, House of Games is a great movie to discover whether you’re thinking like a thief or a sucker throughout. Even at its worst, it’ll still put you on the edge of your seat and keep you thinking.

Just do everyone a favor and keep the predictions to yourself. No one likes to watch movies with “the predictor”.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2010 1:32 pm

    Not many know about this film however, it does have when the best scripts written. Good Review!

    • May 22, 2010 1:47 pm

      Yeah, I’m surprised how pretty much no one’s commented on this. I agree, good movie, it’s a shame it’s fallen so under the radar.

  2. May 22, 2010 2:13 pm

    Gave this a watch after Glengarry, nothing could hold up well after watching Alec Baldwin give one of the best film lines ever.

    • May 22, 2010 2:18 pm

      Yeah, that’s a hard to act to follow. Truly was the best thing Baldwin’s ever done.

  3. May 22, 2010 3:39 pm

    Well summarized! I couldn’t agree more, when the “con is on” is when this film is at its best. While this is certainly no Glengarry Glen Ross it definitely has its moments. I have to say though, Lindsay Crouse may be one of my least favourite actresses of all time, the woman is about as dynamic as a block of cement.

    • May 22, 2010 3:49 pm

      Yeah, watching her “act” was tough on the senses. Fun movie though, glad you saw it and dug it!

  4. May 23, 2010 3:37 am

    To defend Krause – she was married to Mamet at the time. I’m not sure how to feel about this either, I almost find the climax not that believable? That being said I did rush out and get the Criterion of this when it was released.

    Good review, and I think I would have to give it an 8. I just love the script, it’s air tight (like all of Mamet’s work). I’d have to say my favorite film of his that he directed has to be “Spartan”.

    • May 23, 2010 1:15 pm

      I need to give Spartan another watch, wasn’t blown away by it the first time around but I’ve been meaning to give it a second chance lately. Didn’t know that about Krause though, that explains a lot.

    • May 23, 2010 10:04 pm

      Spartan featuring the immortal Ed O’Neill? I have to give that another go around myself.

  5. Pablo Chiste permalink
    May 24, 2010 2:18 pm

    Mamet is most definitely the man. What’s evnn better is he’s improving as a filmmaker. His last movie, Redbelt, is in my opinion his best.
    Avoid Oleana however. It’s based on a play from the days of feminism and sexual harassment being controversial subjects. It is quite tedious and dated. To make it even worse Ricky Jay doesn’t even show up.

    • May 24, 2010 2:19 pm

      No Ricky Jay? Avoiding it like the plague.

      Missed Redbelt, will check it out though.

  6. June 2, 2010 12:04 pm

    Nice review of one of my favourite movies – and my favourite playwright. Yes, he’s had a few turkeys, but when he hits he hits squarely.

    I know what you mean about the second viewing, but that’s always the problem with plot twist movies. It’s all about the telling, though. The language, the feel…

  7. June 2, 2010 12:06 pm

    BTW, Redbelt’s great. The ending stretches believability a little (a problem with a few Mamet movies, actually) but the journey to the ending makes it all worthwhile.
    I love Oleanna with a passion, too, but I may be biased. It’s certainly in my top 100 movies.

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