AMERICAN BUFFALO (director: Michael Corrente; screenwriter: from the play by David Mamet/David Mamet; cinematographer: Richard Crudo; editor: Kate Sanford; music: Thomas Newman; cast: Dustin Hoffman (Teach), Sean Nelson (Bobby), Dennis Franz (Donny); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Gregory Mosher; MGM Home Entertainment; 1996-USA/UK)
Dustin Hoffman channels his Ratso Rizzo character from the 1969 Midnight Cowboy.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

American Buffalo is written by David Mamet and based on his 1975 play. Michael Corrente (“Brooklyn Rules”/Federal Hill”/”Outside Providence“) directs this talkative three-character stagy film that never quite makes the grade as a whole despite the fine performances and the sharp Mamet-speak. Its pessimistic vision of mankind becomes so dreary it can give one a headache. The action-less theater conversation piece is just too tedious to be entertaining and doesn’t say enough about its struggling vulgar low-life characters to make it worth watching. Dustin Hoffman channels his Ratso Rizzo character from the 1969 Midnight Cowboy.

Donny Dubrow (Dennis Franz) is the struggling owner of a junk shop in the poorer part of town. He’s upset because he recently sold a buffalo head nickel to a customer for $90 and has since found out it’s worth five times that. Donny has his loyal teenage errand boy, Bobby (Sean Nelson), going around town to see if he can locate that customer. The plan cooked up by Donny is to break into his living quarters with Bobby and steal back the coin and any other coins if the guy is a collector, as suspected. Donny’s loud mouth paranoid poker playing loser friend, Teach (Dustin Hoffman), a pretentious know-it-all petty criminal type, wants to get in on the action and bad mouths Bobby as being too green to do the job. As the poison-tongued Teach keeps up his bad vibe rap, Donny becomes uncertain and takes the kid off the robbery. Things escalate, after about an hour of this Mamet dialog getting repeated, as Bobby tries to sell to Donny a similar nickel he said a man in the street sold him. Donny becomes uncertain who to believe, as Teach punches out Bobby for lying about the coin and suspicions boil over until an important plot point is introduced that clears up everything.

The plodding film never achieves much tension or wonder at male bonding working or going under, and the Franz character’s soul searching (the main point of the story) is too subtle to shine through all the theatrics of Hoffman’s technically perfect but unmoving hammy performance (even if Franz gives a brilliant performance and almost makes the film work by himself). In any case, it’s solid enough as a play, but as a movie it’s too awkward and too bleak for me to sit through this verbal diarrhea and not be more bored than thrilled.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”