Things Change

(USA - 1988)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Don Ameche, Joe Mantegna, Robert Prosky, J.J. Johnston, Ricky Jay, Mike Nussbaum,  William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh
Genre: Comedy
Director: David Mamet
Screenplay: Shel Silverstein, David Mamet
Cinematography: Juan Ruiz Anchia
Composer: Alaric Jans
Runtime: 100 minutes

"They always like you when you're someone else" - Jerry

Things Change is a lighthearted Mafia con men buddy noir and black comedy built around deception, wit, coincidence, misunderstanding, accident, and luck. The brilliance of David Mamet is his movies can't be pinned down in a few easily understandable terms, yet you are rarely confused while watching them. The stories are incredibly unpredictable, but only the characters within them are bewildered, or are they?

An old Italian immigrant named Gino (Don Ameche) that scrapes a living shining shoes is escorted from his shop and asked by a Chicago Mafia chief (Mike Nussbaum) to confess to a murder. In exchange for spending "3-5 years" in prison, he'll be paid a sum of money each year that will be enough for him to achieve his dream of owning a fishing boat in Sicily. Gino turns them down, but realizing who they are and what they'll probably do to him, he quickly changes his mind and makes the deal.

Gino is to confess on Monday, so a free thinking flunky named Jerry (Joe Mantegna) who is apparently in charge of kitchen patrol because he's "on probation" is supposed to guard Gino in a hotel room over the weekend and teach him his lines. Jerry quickly gets bored sitting around the hotel and decides to take Gino to a hotel and casino in Lake Tahoe so Gino can have some R & R before he begins his jail term. As soon as they get there, Jerry is recognized by chauffeur Billy Drake (William H. Macy), who is used to mobsters staying in the hotel and heard about Jerry's screw up. Without saying anything specific, Jerry cons Billy into thinking he's back in well enough with the mob that he's been chosen to escort one of those bosses who is so high up that nobody knows him. Billy hooks them up with the royal treatment in the hotel, which includes unlimited credit, but their low profile weekend turns into a series of adventures that leads them to the house of Nevada's don Joseph Vincent (Robert Prosky). While the film is a descendant of the great Hal Ashby film Being There, the initial mistaken identity con is Mamet at his best and results in a very interesting set of chain reactions.

The scene where Vincent is trying to figure out whether Gino is the real deal or not is excellent. It's really tense because if Vincent doesn't welcome him then someone will be taking Gino and Jerry out in body bags. Obviously Vincent can't come out and say what they wants to know because that would be a huge insult to Gino if Gino were really who Vincent thinks he could be. Ameche & Prosky are in top form here timing everything perfectly, speaking so vaguely, really drawing the conversation out with long silences, and just subtly struggling to come to some realization. The beauty of Gino is he always finds a way to answer in a somewhat truthful fashion without letting out enough of the truth that his cover is blown. He often finds a way to talk about shining shoes without letting people know that's the closest he ever got to mob rule. Prosky gets across how badly he wants to find someone that is his equal, to be able to embrace a new friend instead of ordering another person around.

On the surface, Mamet's movies are more or less always about cons. However, the biggest mistake you can make is looking at them from this perspective. Things Change has a shady exterior, but a good heart. It's is really about what a person values. It's about honor, loyalty, and respect. More than anything else, it's about friendship and how much you are willing to sacrifice for it. What makes the film so interesting is Gino is transformed into several things he's not throughout the film for the purpose of seeing how his values withstand different settings, lifestyles, and levels of importance. Gino's most telling line is "I give MY word." Is that more important to him than even his life?

Mamet is a playwright who has headed many theatrical productions, so his movies are not the ones to go to for a bravura visual style and this was only the second he directed so he was still working out kinks. You come to Mamet if you want intelligent, ironic, and unpredictable writing. You also come to him if you want excellent performances. What differentiates his work from anyone else is the way the lines are delivered. The Rhythm of Mamet makes sentences that aren't funny on paper really funny in actuality because he understands how to make the words work for him. This is really important because his characters usually can't say what they are thinking because that would blow the con.

Aside from Ameche, the cast is drawn from Mamet's stage actors. They all understand how his characters work and speak, so that's actually better and easier. Mantegna, Macy, & J.T. Walsh went on to become some of the better movie performers, so it's not like he's working with "amateurs."  All the performances are strong. Ameche is defined by his honor and respect so he has no sense of urgency even when he's somewhat confused and bewildered trying to figure out how to get the two of them out of their latest mess. He's always able to stay true to the original Gino even though he's taken on the role of the well-dressed and respected mob boss. Mantegna likes to operate well above his means. He has the sharpness and a confidence of the great con men, but the control and luck of the ones that wash up on the shore. Mantegna finds the right edginess, while Ameche makes us underestimate him then surprises us with his cleverness.

Things Changes is not the best movie Mamet ever wrote or directed, but it's a treat because it walks such a fine line. The movie shouldn't work because the comedy comes at you from so many directions, yet it doesn't lessen the tension. This is a movie where you care about the two main characters and get many laughs as the bond of friendship between these opposites grows, but at the same time you believe there's a good chance that at least one will die before the end of the film. There are scenes that don't have the power they could and scenes that rely too much on coincidence (particularly the one at the gas station), but ultimately the film is both entertaining and satisfying.



* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *