Judge Michael Nazarewycz wonders if Matthew Broderick will win a set of steak knives.
As the old whore said, "Another great profession ruined by amateurs."
I am a great fan of 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross, the excellent story of a cutthroat real estate sales office. That screenplay was written by David Mamet (House of Games), based on his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play and it stars, among others, Jack Lemmon (Mister Roberts) as a cagey veteran salesman trying to hold his own against the younger sales talent. When the opportunity to review another film starring Lemmon based on a Mamet play, I couldn't pass it up.
Facts of the Case
Robert (Jack Lemmon) and John (Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) are actors and friends in a repertory theater based in an unnamed city (presumably New York or Chicago). Over the course of an undetermined length of time, Robert's career begins to slide and John's begins to rise.
Having not seen Mamet's original play, it's impossible for me to compare the screen adaptation to the source material, leaving me to wonder if the play is as bad as this film is. Normally I wouldn't even mention it, because most times I haven't read a film's source book (or whatever the source is), and I merely judge the film as a film. This feels different, though, and maybe it's because of the structure.
A Life in the Theatre is a two-man something. I'm not trying to be intentionally vague, it's just that it isn't a story in the traditional sense. Yes, the film starts and stops, but there is no beginning or end, per se, only a tiresome middle. It plays like a reality show, but one that shows only clips about one aspect of its subjects' lives. In this case, it's a glimpse at the relationship between two men who act for a living. It illustrates a portion of the evolution of their relationship and their respective careers, but there is nothing we know about them to make us care what happens to them.
Lemmon plays the seasoned veteran who is constantly offering opinions, advice, or general musings about acting and the theater. Broderick is a younger player who listens, counters, and listens some more. There are hints of a father/son metaphor, or even a master/prodigy relationship, but by about midway through the film, they feel like an old married couple, and not in the good way. As Lemmon's career grows closer to its end, he becomes more insufferable. Conversely, as Broderick's career blossoms, he becomes less responsive to Lemmon. It's all so remarkably dull.
I don't think this is the fault of Lemmon or Broderick, both of whom, while not giving their greatest performances, are perfectly fine. Nor do think this is the fault of Mamet, because he is adept at adapting his own work for the screen. I think the problem is twofold, beginning with director Gregory Mosher (The Prime Gig). The film never establishes any kind of flow whatsoever; it's simply a series of scenes connected together with Lemmon and Broderick and their discussions as the common denominators. Also, Mosher moves the action from the stage and the dressing room—the two most common settings—to several other locations, including the bowels of the theater, a diner, and other places. It's awkward, because this forces the appearance of other people, including stage crew, yet no one else speaks.
Even if the direction had been solid, this film still would not have worked. It's too much of an inside-baseball look at the craft of stage acting, as "told" by two fictional characters. This isn't some biopic about a stage star's early career, nor is it a melodrama that incorporates elements of the craft as part of the story. This is as workmanlike a tale as it gets. I can see how it would play well onstage because theater people are into theater things, but for the casual theater patron or the movie buff, it is lifeless.
The standard def full frame video presentation of this MOD disc from Warner Archive is not good, peaking at passable but often times muddling through with terribly soft edges, beginning with the VHS-screaming opening credits. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is fine, although entirely unchallenged by any significant ambient noise. It is important to note the following, however, which appears on the Amazon page where this disc is sold:
This product is manufactured on demand using DVD-R recordable media. This product is expected to play back in DVD Video "play only" devices, and may not play in other DVD devices, including recorders and PC drives.
My experience? The disc plays in my Sony Blu-ray/DVD player, but not on my Apple MacBook Pro. Also, other than the trailer, there are no extras on the disc. Even the menu is generic, with a picture of the WB water tower and two options: PLAY or TRAILER.
If you are a Broderick or Lemmon completist, nab A Life in the Theatre for your collection. Otherwise, it's not even worth a watch.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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