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THINGS CHANGE(director/writer: David Mamet; screenwriter: Shel Silverstein; cinematographer: Juan Ruiz-Anchia; editor: Trudy Ship; cast: Don Ameche (Gino), Joe Mantegna (Jerry), Robert Prosky (Joseph Vincent), Mike Nussbaum (Mr. Green), J.J. Johnston (Frankie), Ricky Jay (Mr. Silver), Steve Goldstein (Randy), W.H. Macy (Billy), J.T. Walsh (Hotel Manager), Willo Hausman (Miss Bates); Runtime: 100; Columbia; 1988)
“It’s a film that comes with a perfect shoeshine and smile underneath its ludicrous and cynical premise.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout.

This is Mamet’s second effort as a director, after his diabolically successful House of Games. It’s a Mafia black comedy, with undertones of being film noir. The director’s witty dialogue and penchant for interesting plot lines are there, but this film is not as sharp-edged as some of his later work. It teams the old Italian-American shoeshine man Gino (Ameche) with the bumbling Mafia flunky Jerry (Mantegna). The third impactful character is the big shot Mafia don, Joseph Vincent (Prosky), who bonds with Gino and feels proud that he has, supposedly, met a Mafia chieftain who is equal to him in stature.

The film opens as an elderly Chicago shoeshine man, Gino, is approached in his workplace by two well-dressed Mafia thugs who tell him there’s someone who has an offer for him and that he should come to the address on the card they hand him; they also hand him a big bill under the card. The offer, as explained by Mr. Green (Nussbaum), is that Gino take the rap for someone who committed a murder who looks like him and in return he will be granted what he wishes. They tell him that he will only have to serve a three year sentence. At first Gino says no, which irritates the mobsters, but then he changes his mind and tells them he will retire in Sicily with the fishing boat they give him. As a token of friendship, he is given a small silver coin by Mr. Green.

Jerry is on probation with the mobsters because he goofed up a previous assignment, which means he gets lots of insults and K. P. duty. He is chosen to be Gino’s keeper for the next three days and is told this is his chance to get off Mafia probation by henchman Frankie (Johnson). Confined to a stuffy hotel room Jerry gets bored with rehearsing Gino’s confession that he will repeat on Monday’s court hearing and impulsively, with big-time bravado, takes him to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, for a supposedly low profile weekend of gambling and entertainment. There Jerry is recognized by a limo driver (Macy) as being from the Chicago mob, and his companion Gino is immediately assumed to be a Mafia chieftain. He is given the royal treatment by the hotel which includes free use of their best penthouse suite, unlimited credit for gambling, a custom-made tailored suit, a manicure, and many other service amenities.

The two get caught up in this mistaken identity bit and all the coincidences that come their way, as Gino is now known all over the hotel as some kind of Mr. Big from Chicago. Their gambling venture turns into the weakest part of the film because it is not believable. Gino wins $35,000 because the roulette wheel is fixed and then must lose it back to them with grace. They then attend a comedy show and the comedian introduces them to two showgirls who end up with them in their penthouse bubbly sunken tub. This is the entertainment highlight of the weekend for them. It also sparks Jerry to tell Gino not to get too carried away that the girls like them so much, “They always like you when you’re someone else.” That’s pure Mamet dialogue.

The local Mafia chief Joseph Vincent (Robert Prosky) hears of the mysterious Mr. Big’s arrival, and requests him to stay at his mountain estate as a guest. Never having heard of him, he is about to either welcome him as a member of the family or have him killed. This scene is brilliantly done, a true pleasure to watch as the men through long drawn-out silences converse without saying much that gives them away. The gestures and the timing of the two is masterful, as the two embrace after much vague conversational banter and recognize each other as equals. Gino gives the don the silver coin Mr. Green gave him as a token of his friendship. Later, by the beach, the don gives Gino a coin to call him if he should ever need his friendship in an emergency.

Things get sticky when Gino is asked to stay overnight in the don’s house, as he is having a meeting with other Mafia kingpins from around the country and wants him to meet his old pals. At this meeting is Mr. Green, which prompts Jerry to steal one of the luxury parked cars and head to the airport and get back to Chicago. But Jerry runs out of gas, then discovers he doesn’t have enough money to pay for the gas. In an awkward and meaningless scene that drew no comedy from it, the gas station owner is about to call the sheriff but Gino pays for the gas when he borrows the money from the hotel’s chief butler (Goldstein). He just happens to also come in for gas and is in awe of him ever since Gino told him how to shine shoes the right way.

In Chicago ‘things change’ for the innocent dupe, as one of the mafioso, Frankie, takes Gino for a death walk near the waterfront. But Jerry decides that he can’t live with himself if he does what his bosses want. He has become attached to this bewildered, regal old man of honor and lets his emotions do the thinking for him. He dazes Frankie with a blow to the head, and Gino reacts by remaining in character and calls the don with the coin he gave him. He tells him who he really is and what he’s up to, again finding the right words to communicate with his new friend.

There were scenes that lacked weight and seemed phony but these three main characters, nevertheless, gave this film a brilliant character study: Ameche by his restrained performance, Mantegna by his energetic and funny one, and Prosky by his perfectly menacing and touching one. It lifted the film into a rich mixture of farce, gang violence, and tenderness. It’s a film that comes with a perfect shoeshine and smile underneath its ludicrous and cynical premise.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”