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MOVIE REVIEW : The More ‘Things Change’ . . .

David Mamet may be attracted to the seedier side of life. But when the mood is on him, he can make those moral lower depths sing.

That’s what happens in the playwright-film maker’s second movie, “Things Change” (selected theaters). It’s a comic tarantella through shady back alleys, full of delicately stepped pirouettes through the pleasure palaces of the criminal underworld. This dance of near-death has an odd, stately rhythm, like the plangent mandolin plunks we hear under the movie’s first, frosty shots of Chicago.

Most of this incongruous dignity and warmth is due to Don Ameche, who plays an elderly Italian shoeshine man, Gino, hired by the mob to take a murder rap for a gangster. For an old dream, a fishing boat and a whiff of sex and power, this hard-working, modestly paid old man signs away his reputation and most of the rest of his life. But once he gives his word, he will not swerve or flinch.

It’s a beautiful performance, probably the subtlest movie acting Ameche has done since his hell-bound roue in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 “Heaven Can Wait.” Radiating graciousness and serenity, Ameche swallows himself inside the skin of this self-effacing man--with his measured, broken English, his neat old clothes and poised maestoso movements. In the first few scenes you may not even recognize him, though a later snapshot of the guilty crime boss shows Ameche again, with his familiar extroverted movie smile.

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Joe Mantegna shared with Ameche the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival, and he’s an excellent foil. Mantegna’s Jerry is a low-level Mafia minion on probation, Gino’s guardian and trial-coach. But though Jerry tries to project the brutally suave Cosa Nostra style, he apes it self-consciously, nervously. Unlike his bosses--J. J. Johnston’s brutal Frankie, Mike Nussbaum’s manipulative Mr. Green, Ricky Jay’s sleazy Mr. Silver--his heart hasn’t been chilled. Sympathetically, he takes Gino on a last tango in Lake Tahoe.

It’s another level of the story’s irony that, at Tahoe, Jerry’s cryptic baloney and Gino’s reticence are immediately mistaken for something else: the tight reserve of a Mafia lord (“the guy behind the guy behind the guy”) and his chief lieutenant. They’re miscast. Jerry is a killer-thug with a heart, Gino is a deeply honest man being paid to lie. And they’re also outcasts, a patsy and a gangland gofer who, suddenly, through a series of mistaken-identity twists, are plunged into a weekend of high life near a center of riches, sex, crime and power. They’re two accidental camaradas who develop solidarity and love for each other.

The outline of “Things Change” reminds you, among other things, of some of Hal Ashby’s films and George Gallow’s scripts. But the film has an extremely dry, austere setup and rhythm all its own. The tableaux are stiff; the performances studied. The spontaneity, all the movie-movie tension and bustle we expect in a story like this, have been avoided. There’s a reason. The film is a comic examination of a rigid, almost petrified society, hypocrisy covered by a tight form.

In his first film, the sleight-of-hand saga “House of Games,” Mamet was moving toward a style. Here, he seems to have found it. Mamet hones his dialogue to a Pinter-like clarity and, with his brilliant cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia dryly understates the glamour, sensuality and tension.

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“Things Change,” the movie’s catch-phrase, has a special meaning. It refers to the dangerous mutability of modern life, the quicksand of lies, murder and treachery that lie beneath Gino’s and Jerry’s feet at every step. It also suggests Gino’s changelessness, his anachronistic sense of real honor.

We hear the phrase three times--from Gino, a clown and a killer. And its meaning, like life, is mutable. Things change; life is unpredictable; the bottom may become the top and vice versa. You can’t depend on anyone or anything. But you can depend on Gino; that’s the beauty of Ameche’s performance. Within this coldly revolving, deadly carrousel, he’s the one fixed, unwavering point. The chief Mafiosi, with one exception, really don’t believe in honor. Though they cling to its symbols, such as the old Italian coin passed to Gino, they’re like politicians: Their words can become inoperative. Yet because Gino does believe in that honor, because he is the gentleman they pretend to be, he can pass on his principle to the people around him.

There are two major flaws in Mamet’s script. It’s hard to believe that Jerry would be so blithe, even at the beginning of their mad adventure. And it’s probably a mistake to have a slightly premature turn of heart from Jerry.

“Things Change” (MPAA-rated PG, despite brief nudity) is a coldly controlled, immaculately mounted show, with a softly beating heart. Everything--the dialogue, the performances, Ruiz Anchia’s jewel-like lighting, Michael Merritt’s wittily elegant production designs and Alaric Jans’ haunting, spare score--contributes to the final effect. Things change, luck passes, life can become cruel. But, with performances like Ameche’s and Mantegna’s in movies like this, there’s a gentler music that almost redeems it.


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