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Glengarry Glen Ross

I confess that I rented Glengarry Glen Ross without any real idea what it was about. I’d certainly heard of it as one of those movies that everyone simply had to see, and I knew some of the actors in it, but I didn’t have any real knowledge of the premise or of what made it great. Having finally seen the movie, I can start to understand why. I scarcely know where to begin describing this film, but I’m certainly going to try.

On one side, you’ve got our three protagonists. There’s Shelley Levine (Jack Lemmon, who was 67 at the time), there’s Dave Moss (Ed Harris, 42), and there’s George Aaronow (Alan Arkin, 58). One of them works tirelessly, despite getting nothing for his efforts. The second wallows in his jealousy of those who are more fortunate than him. The third is just a spineless nobody who agrees with whomever spoke last. All three of them are real estate salesmen who are in dire financial straits because they can’t close any deals to save their lives. It’s gotten so bad that these men deliver their pitches almost entirely in veiled pleas, intricate falsehoods, and elaborate semantic sleight of hand.

Throughout the entire first half, there’s the constant question of why these characters are having such rotten luck. They keep complaining that they can’t get any decent leads to work with, and maybe that’s true. However, it’s equally possible that maybe they just suck. Or maybe the customers see through all the flim-flam being presented to them. Hell, maybe nobody’s buying because the economy sucks and nobody has any money. Through most of the movie, these possibilities are all implicitly presented as equally valid. Not that it matters, of course.

As far as the antagonists are concerned, it doesn’t matter why the salesmen aren’t closing. All that matters is that they aren’t closing, period. The management doesn’t have any sympathy for the workers who are busting their asses, and they don’t have time for salesmen who can’t turn shitty leads into gold. In this case, the management is represented by John Williamson (Kevin Spacey, 33) and Blake (Alec Baldwin, 34). The office’s owners, Mitch and Murray, are frequently mentioned and never seen. Williamson is an officious idiot who knows absolutely nothing about how to make a sale, openly spewing bile toward his employees. Blake, on the other hand, is a bully who flaunts his wealth and claims to be the best salesman in the building, openly mocking anyone inferior to him.

There’s a reason why I’ve listed the actor’s ages in the above paragraphs. Note that in this movie, the antagonists in this movie are visibly younger than the characters we’re meant to sympathize with. As such, this isn’t just a case of class warfare with the honest workers being downtrodden by their dictatorial superiors. This is also a case of age warfare, in which experience and an older-fashioned way of thinking are being openly threatened and pushed aside by a younger and more ruthless mindset. Both Williamson and Blake — especially Blake — are representative of the outside world: Cold, unfeeling, and ruthless, concerned only with money and with number one. Throw in Mitch and Murray, and you’ve got a bunch of faceless abstract concepts in addition to the condescending douchebag and the no-talent bureaucrat. In short, these characters represent everything that is soul-crushing about work in the modern world.

It isn’t until the movie’s second half when we get Ricky Roma (Al Pacino, 52), who acts as a sort of mediator between these two sides. He works alongside our three primary salesmen, but he’s far more successful than any of them. He’s every bit as driven and no-nonsense as Blake, but he’s still got a heart. In terms of age, he’s definitely not Jack Lemmon, but he’s no Kevin Spacey, either. Basically put, this is a character who’s capable of swimming in either social circle, uniquely able to speak candidly about the strengths and failings of either side. Of course, Roma is every bit as much a lying and manipulative shitbag as any of his office peers, so it’s hard for me to call him the “moral center” of the film.

I’d like to restate this cast, if I could. This movie has Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Al Pacino, and Jonathan Pryce in a supporting role. Every one of these men is a world-class actor, and every one is at the pinnacle of his game. It’s nothing short of mesmerizing to watch these men work and play off each other in this movie, especially when they’re given such a damn good script. Though the plot’s structure is extremely loose, the dialogue and its delivery are absolutely superb. The use of profanity alone is a work of art.

Having said that, I do have a sizable nitpick: The editing. There are quite a few occasions during the many dialogue exchanges when the film will cut from shot to reverse shot and back again for only a few lines at a time. During these exchanges, the film’s editing will suddenly go spastic, with alternating shots that are only a second long apiece. This is made even more frustrating with the knowledge that the scene was shot with both actors in frame, which begs the question of why they didn’t just use that angle instead.

Aside from that complaint, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that Glengarry Glen Ross is a classic. It’s a movie about economic uncertainty, in which good and hard-working men just can’t cut it no matter how hard they try. Now, that’s a sentiment that has only grown more timely. If you’ve seen this movie already, give it another look. If you haven’t seen this movie, get off your ass.

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