(New York Times Film Review, October 21, 1988.)

by Vincent Canby

The gofer at the Tahoe airport pumps mob-soldier Jerry (Joe Mantegna) about the identity of Jerry's elderly, aloof traveling companion. Says Jerry with offhand cool, his eyebrow lifted a significant millimeter, "He's the guy behind the guy behind the guy." The go-fer is impressed.

So is the staff at Tahoe's gaudy Hotel Galaxy, where Jerry and his companion are housed in neo-Roman splendor on what's called "the Criterion Floor." Under his breath, nodding toward the older man, Jerry tells the manager, "Out here for a littler low-profile relaxation." Says the manager, "Your privacy will be respected."

Jerry's mysterious pal is not, as everyone assumes, some all-powerful don-of-dons, so mighty and awesome that, like God's, his mane can't be said aloud. He is Gino (Don Ameche); a hard-working, fatalistic Chicago shoeshine man who, on the promise a fishing boat and a funded retirement in Sicily, has agreed to confess to a mob murder he didn't commit.

Out of the goodness of his heart, and without the knowledge of his superiors, Jerry has decided that Gino should have his (Jerry's) dream weekend at Lake Tahoe before turning himself in to the Chicago police. What follows is a wonderfully fresh, deadpan comedy of mistaken identities and sentimental gangsters, the sort whose lives are governed by a hierarchy of contradictory loyalties that only a mother could understand.


"Things Change," the second film to be directed by David Mamet, is an airier piece than his fine "House of Games," but no less characteristic and oddball. The screenplay is a collaboration between Mr. Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and Shel Silverstein, the cartoonist and playwright who may be the funniest people alive. Their film, which opens today at the Sutton, is an enchanted lark about the wiseguys and those hustlers who think they are wiseguys, but aren't.

Chief among the latter is Mr. Mantegna's brilliantly funny Jerry who, when first met, is washing the dishes in the don's Chicago mansion. Jerry is being penalized for some unspecified gaffe. He is offered redemption if he takes charge of the bewildered Gino, drills him in all of the things to which Gino must confess, and gets him to the courthouse on time Monday morning. Jerry is a marvelous character, but I've no idea how much has to do with the writing and direction and how much with Mr. Mantegna's extraordinary performance. In whatever way Jerry came into being, he is fused funniness.

He wants desperately to be a good company man. He seems to be the sort of fellow who has studied hard to be able to look and sound authentic. He has cultivated the vocabulary of the laconic and all of the gestures of the slippery. He has the confidence of someone who can walk through a downpour without getting wet. Left to his own devices, however, Jerry inevitably gives himself away. He is a flawed hood.

In performance and role, Mr. Mantegna's Jerry is perfectly matched by Mr. Ameche's Gino, who sports a splendid, old-world mustache and accent along with the kind of great comic aplomb that wins actors awards for other than sentimental reasons. With his superb timing, Mr. Ameche manages somehow to fit into the Mamet universe while always having one foot outside, much like Gino with the mob.

Nothing fazes Gino, not a pair of sweet, imposingly sexy showgirls, who want to take him fishing, and not even the Tahoe don (Robert Prosky) who, suspecting Gino to be a V.I.P., invites him to lunch. Their meeting is a huge success, the don interpreting Gino's earnest remarks about shoe repairing to be sage parables about the loneliness of life at the top.

Equally fine are a number of other actors associated with Mr. Mamet's theater work, including J.J. Johnston, W.H. Macy and J.T. Walsh. A particular standout is Jonathan Katz, who co-wrote the original story for "House of Games." Here he appears as a Tahoe comic named Jackie Shore, whose on-stage monologues are so good–so on-target and funny-awful–that the demands of the move seem to be an untimely interruption.

The dialogue is so full of Mr. Mamet's fondness for words and phrases repeated in such a way that their meanings are reduced, as if by long simmering, to something that is essential but still hopelessly and hilariously opaque. Talking isn't communication. It's an exchange of arcane passwords.

Like "House of Games," this new film, photographed by Juna Ruiz Anchia and designed by Michael Merritt, looks to be both realistic and fantastic. This is Mr. Mamet's way as a director. He seems to sidle into scenes, though the scenes themselves are blunt and straightforward. Also like "House of Games," "Things Change" has an ending problem. As written and directed, the film's final two scenes don't make immediate sense. A last-minute twist is in order, but this twist is so muffed in the placement of the camera and in dramatic emphasis that many people may be as perplexed as I was.

One buys the resolution because one wants to, and because "Things Change" has been so self-assured up to that point that it deserves the benefit of all doubts.