directed by Stuart Gordon
(First Independent, 2005)

Edmond Burke is a man with two strikes against him. After all, he was created by David Mamet and played by William H. Macy. What more do you need to know?

This: On his way home from the office Friday afternoon, Burke has strike three pitched at him -- his receptionist tells him his Monday appointment has been pushed back to 1:15. For reasons never made quite clear -- which is not inconsistent with Mamet's modus operandi -- Burke takes the news as if it's a Dear John letter with a closing coda about his stocks crashing through the floor.

So being a Macy/Mamet character, Burke does the only logical thing he can do. He swings big time. On his way home, he stops at a fortuneteller's shop -- apparently drawn in by its number, 115 -- and has the fortune teller (Frances Bay) read his cards.

"You are not where you belong," she tells him. As if we -- or he -- needed to be told.

From there, Burke's life spirals quickly downward.

He goes home, breaks up with his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) and heads for a nearby bar, where he gets into a rather racist conversation with a guy (Joe Mantegna) who has an unusual approach to bigotry: He figures the whites have it so wrong and bad and the blacks have it so right and good he wishes he "was a nigger." (I told you he was racist.)

It's a seed of discontent that will bear strange fruit before Edmond is over, but not before Burke sinks into a world of pimps, peep-show sex and prostitutes he could afford to pay for, but won't. This leads him into a world of violence -- both street and domestic -- and, eventually, the New York legal system, which provides Burke and us with perhaps the strangest "happy" ending ever carved out of the story of an unlikable loser.

Like much of Mamet's work, Edmond is as dark as dark can be, and the locations -- the sleazy slut joints and pawn shops of New York's late-night streets -- reinforce that darkness. So do the characters Burke meets on his way: a card sharper (Dule Hill), a peep-show girl who won't break a $10 (Bai Ling) and, perhaps most of all, the pimp who promises to deliver Burke what he wants without the usual markup (Lionel Mark Smith).

But perhaps the saddest characters are Edmond's wife and Glenna (Julia Stiles), a waitress he picks up after his attempts to buy sex fail. They're probably the most reasonable characters in the film -- granted, the standards are low. But their attempts to do the right thing, in true Mamet style, accomplish little more -- and in Glenna's case much less -- than those of the rest of the lowest-common-denominator crew.

How much you want to read into this, of course, is up to you. For unlike the fortuneteller, Mamet keeps his cards close to his chest. It's clear the point of Edmond is to make you wonder.

You might even wonder, at some point, if you want to keep watching this film. That point will probably be when Burke decides to use the knife he's bought from his not-so-friendly neighborhood pawnbroker (George Wendt, looking very un-Norman in the part).

The answer is you do want to keep watching, in spite of the escalating violence that makes Edmond almost unwatchable. Then, too, there's the dialogue, which, as always, is razor-sharp. But at times there's too much of it, delivered too stagily. Edmond was a play before it was a movie, and its stage origins come through a bit strong sometimes, especially in the scene where Burke leaves his wife.

Ultimately, however, Edmond is an acting tour-de-force for Macy, who does his Fargo best to create a character it's hard to take your eyes off of.

No one plays the pathetic liar better than Macy, and Mamet gives him two scenes in particular in which to ply his pathological trade: First, when an officer approaches him outside a black gospel church and Burke tries to fend off his arrest with obvious -- to everyone but himself -- fabrications about how he's going into the church to speak (a lie that nearly becomes the truth), and second, when he's interrogated by a policeman (Dylan Walsh) and goes into bipolar story-bending mode.

"Every fear hides a wish," Burke decides as the film approaches its climax.

But what that fear is, and what that wish is -- that's why you have to bear with Burke. Mamet's not going to tell you. He's going to show you. And that, above all else, is what makes Edmond worth watching -- to the bittersweet end.

by Miles O'Dometer
31 March 2007

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