The Spanish Prisoner is one of those movies that I’m not allowed to review, because if I say what I really think about it, then I’m a heel, and I don’t understand how talented a God Among Men like David Mamet is. But I’m going to do it anyway, because movies like this piss me off a little bit.
Movies like what?
Movies that are nothing but a plot. Movies where the characters are neither people nor archetypes, but rather MacGuffins who set up Twists. And you know what’s worse than movies that are nothing but a plot? Movies that either don’t know they’re nothing but a plot, or do but desperately want you to think there’s more to them anyway.
The Spanish Prisoner is such a movie. It is (SPOILER ALERT) more or less (and more more than less) The Game, but for literary snobs. So, if you saw The Game, and you kinda liked it, but you’re, you know, not the kind of person who goes in for that sort of nonsense, then The Spanish Prisoner is what you’re looking for.
The title is apparently the historical name for what we in the email age know as the Nigerian Scam. It’s also emblematic of the strategy this movie uses to avoid having you thinking of it as nothing more than a big gimmick: it tells you upfront what it’s up to. So, if you get the reference in the title, you already know that no one is what they seem. But, you know, if you don’t get that reference, not only is Mamet happy to have the police in his film explain it to you – which they do – he also helpfully has the too-confident new secretary straight-up tell the victim of the scam that he’s too trusting, and that no one is what they seem.
The most frustrating example of this was the central MacGuffin. Joe – because he’s just your average Joe! – Surname (because I forgot it – did it ever matter?) is a brilliant … um … scientist of some sort? … who works for … um … well, let’s call it Acme – or maybe Reynholm Industries since I’m not sure what this company does either – and has developed a process for them that the movie calls “The Process” which is sooooooo gosh-darn good that it’s going to make them … A MILLION DOLLARS. Actually we don’t know, because he just writes the number on a chalkboard which the camera never focuses on. Get it? Because it’s a MacGuffin, so it doesn’t matter how much, or what the process actually does. It’s annoying because it’s obvious that Mamet is trying to flatter our intelligence. We’re supposed to be sophisticated enough to have seen enough of these kinds of movies that we know it doesn’t actually matter what the hook is, we just need it to get the ball rolling. Ironically, it ends up proving the opposite. We do need to know what the hook is, and it does matter, because otherwise it’s like holding up cue cards that say “you’re intrigued,” or “the audience now weeps.”
And you know, I would have been intrigued but for the fact that Joe just isn’t a believable genius. This just isn’t the kind of person who develops groundbreaking new things worth … A MILLION DOLLARS. The levels are off. I mean, if you imagine a great mixer machine where you can raise and lower the intensity of certain personality traits, then Joe’s levels are off. People who aren’t obsessed with their work don’t develop things worth A MILLION DOLLARS, and Joe never talks about what, exactly, it is that he does. So he’s not a total misfit … in which case, he really shouldn’t be this easily manipulated. I know, I know, there’s nothing easy about this con game – that’s in fact the whole point – that it’s elaborate literaly beyond belief. But you know, you’re wrong about that. Every trap Joe steps into is entirely avoidable. Every trap Joe steps into is in fact obvious. Don’t sign forms you haven’t read. Don’t carry packages from complete strangers on planes. You begin to see the problem. I could see Steve Wozniak doing all of these things, but then, I could also see Steve Wozniak developing a process worth A MILLION DOLLARS. I can’t see a woman telling Steve Wozniak he’s going straight to the top in this company, that it’s written all over him, and having him believe it. That’s the whole trouble with this movie. There isn’t any such person like Joe. Joe as we see him is too corporate to be an inventor, and too people-stupid to be this corporate. The man doesn’t exist.
So, this movie is only a plot. It’s Memento. It’s Miller’s Crossing. It’s The Game. It’s similarly awful.
If this movie’s good for something, then for trying to figure out what it is about it that convinces so many people it’s art. Why do people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching The Game like this one? Off the top of my head, I’d say three things. First, it keeps winking at you. The Game plays it straight. No one in The Game invents anything called “The Process,” and The Game doesn’t have an FBI agent who turns out to be an FBI agent, only not really. Nor does it have anyone who loudly insists that you can’t trust anyone. Second, there are no action sequences; it’s talky. You can always tell a movie is Serious if it doesn’t have any explosions. Finally, it has a central character we’re supposed to see ourselves in. It’s hard to identify with someone like Nicholas van Orton. But Joe? Joe is us. We’re supposed to look at this and go “I know! This is Othello! Perfectly normal insecurities get exploited by unscrupulous people.HOW can anyone protect themselves?”
But you know, when all is said and done, it’s just The Game. Having a thriller remind us here and there that we’re watching a thriller doesn’t make it not a thriller. The lack of explosions doesn’t make this preposterous plot realistic. And I can only identify with “Joe” to the extent he’s believable, and he’s not.
Eventually someone boring is going to come along and point out that there are signs that this is one of those stories where there’s really Something Else going on – that the ending is a false resolution. Sure. For one thing, Jimmy Dell’s con doesn’t really resemble the Spanish Prisoner in any way (aside from being a con), so having the cops make such a big point of it is meant to lead to some head-scratching I guess. Then there’s that smile The Girl gives Joe at the end – as though she knows she’s not really going to prison. And – blink and you missed it BUT – at one point Jimmy Dell jokes about making a coffee table book of Japanese tourists taking pictures, AND THE MARSHALS AT THE END OF THE FILM ARE DISGUISED AS JAPANESE TOURISTS! So, I guess I’m supposed to wonder if there’s something deeper going on here, watch this again and try to assemble all the pieces!
But why don’t I not, becuase I already know there’s nothing else going on – and even if there is, I don’t care, because it’ll be every bit as pointless as the surface story.
We all hate movies that are just political points, right? I mean, you get out of a movie like JFK, and you wanna take Oliver Stone and shake him by the lapels and say “why did you waste 3 hours of my life with something that might as well have been an essay? At least with an essay I can fact-check it as I read!” Well, folks, movies that are nothing but a plot are no better. If you want some brain food, there are plenty of puzzle books out there. Go buy one of those. If I pay the price of admission to see a story, I expect to see a story.