House of Games (1987) / Thriller-Mystery

MPAA Rated: R for language and some violence
Running Time: 102 min.

Cast: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Mike Nussbaum, Lilia Skala
Director: David Mamet
Screenplay: David Mamet
Review published February 16, 2000

Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet (The Untouchables, The Postman Always Rings Twice) takes his first crack at direction with modest success, mostly due to his skills as a writer than anything else. As a director, Mamet shows he is an amateur at best, with stiff and obvious scenes that are almost every bit a "tell" as those described in the film itself. Luckily, the script is still punchy, and it does drive it's overall themes of compulsion and obsession home splendidly.

Crouse (Slap Shot, The Insider) plays a psychiatrist who has had a smash success with her first self-help book but finds herself unsure about what to do next in her uninvolving life. One day a patient alerts her that he has gotten into serious debt with a local card shark (Mantegna, Alice) to the tune of $25,000 and she sets out to try to help her patient out of this jam. Mantegna agrees to settle the debt for her participation in helping him win a big round of poker, to which she readily agrees, only to discover the entire scenario was only a mere game within a game. Fascinated by the lives of these swindling crooks, she opts to study their life for her next book, and finds that sometimes standing too close to the fire is bound to get you burned.

Perhaps Mamet had decided to make everyone in the cast deliver their lines woodenly so as not to give away any "tells" as to what their real motivations are. Be that as it may, it didn't work as House of Games does telegraph it's twisty plot beforehand in many cases and as a result loses it's ability to create true suspense. The cast of actors seem miscast, with Crouse (then Mamet's wife) very unappealing in the lead role. Had Mamet let a skilled director shoot House of Games, a very good movie could have been made without any major changes. Yet there's just enough oomph from the screenplay to make this an absorbing (if flawed) look into the seedy underworld of two-bit crooks. It's not The Sting, but for those who love those types of movies, it's not a bad one to dig out.

Qwipster's rating::

2000 Vince Leo