Following the structure of the medieval morality play of an Everyman character drifting through dark vignettes on the road to salvation, screenwriter David Mamet adapts his one-time confrontational play Edmond to the screen. Businessman Edmond (William H. Macy) rejects the slow-grinding boredom of life with his consumerist wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) and spends a long dark night of the soul in cinema’s fantasy playground version of Los Angeles’s sex district. Like Eyes Wide Shut, it’s not “reality,” but a strange and non-naturalistic, dare I say Brechtian, version of Edmond’s thoughts and fears. But the comic masterstroke of Eyes Wide Shut was its presentation of Tom Cruise going out on the town and failing, over and over again, to get laid. When you switch Cruise with, say, William H. Macy, it’s got a different connotation. As Macy turns bright red with indignation at being ripped off by a bunch of evil women (Bai Ling as a stripper, Denise Richards as a b-girl, Mena Suvari as a whore, and Julia Stiles as an pill-popping neurotically insane actress/waitress), savage knife-wielding black men (Dulé Hill as a card hustler, Lionel Mark Smith as a pimp, Bokeem Woodbine as a prisoner), and cheating gays and Jews, you get what you expect: the nerdy little macho man finally blows his top, catastrophe ensues, then Robert Bly style man’s man wisdom follows. (Why don’t they just call the movie Bitches Leave?)
There’s still something bracing about a white middle-class urbanite having to face up to his fears of sex, women, gays, and blacks, particularly when he’s facing off against a neurotic “bitch” (is there any other kind of woman in Mamet?) at knifepoint, after sex, demanding she be “real” with him, or a close-quarters, no escape encounter with a large black man who says, “Get on my body. You’d best try, or you’re gonna die.” But by the very nature of the morality play, every encounter is pared down to a one-dimensional argument that says the white man is angry, or fearful, and childish. If he does not get what he wants, he will explode.
When the title character, finally resigned to the fact that he won’t get his original dream, kisses the object of all his fears, it doesn’t feel like love; more like acceptance. Unfortunately, like Paul Haggis’s Crash, the characters speak their minds so fully (or lie about their feelings so transparently) that the stuff which should be bubbling under the surface is constantly rising in fiery tirades. Mamet’s macho prose pares down the world to blowjobs, power, and God. While some might find that sort of matter-of-fact elucidation of how we live to be pragmatic, it’s also schematic. It presents a one-sided argument, and not necessarily one open to discussion.