It ain't what you say, it's how you say it. Grousing that Speed-the Plow picks obvious targets - men in the movie business - and hits them with old brickbats - they're shallow, soulless, driven by fear - is to miss the fun of the enterprise. Just as we didn't need Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill to tell us that salesmen could be sad and deluded, or Bertolt Brecht to prove that war is a not-nice thing, we don't require David Mamet's help to grasp that Hollywood grinds out familiar crap because its people all scamper on an ass-kissing, dollar-driven, hamster wheel.
That said, just as there are supposedly only seven plots in the world, it's equally likely that barely a dozen themes exist to go with them. And since stories are all in the telling, who better than Mamet, in his rapid-fire farce mode, to take aim?
Penned back in the money-crazed 80's, when the news was full of screenwriters demanding and receiving the kinds of astronomical sums actors used to command (while actors and directors demanded and received ten times the salaries of screenwriters), Speed-the-Plow casts a jaundiced eye on the whole cycle of greed and desperation. Less successfully, it also delves into battle-of-the-sexes turf, as two whip-smart, hyper-charged studio boys get thrown off their game by the intrusion of a seemingly naive temp secretary.
Bobby (Jeremy Piven ) has just been promoted to head of production, a job that allows him to produce small projects and pitch big ones directly to the studio chief. This is the opportunity his friend and lieutenant, Charlie (Raul Esparza), has been waiting for throughout the 11 years of his own rise from the studio mailroom. He's lined up a hot property and a white-hot actor to go with it. All he and Bobby have to do is get the project greenlit, and they're on their way to serious money and tinseltown cachet. And just to make things interesting, Charlie makes a side-bet that Bobby can't get a date with the pretty new secretary.
It's a bet he loses - but he nearly loses much more than that, as Bobby not only becomes intrigued by Karen (Elizabeth Moss) but, under her sway, changes his mind about the action flick and instead decides to pitch a wildly uncommercial, end-of-the-world novel that Karen thinks is "important." What follows is a tug-of-war for Bobby will he be guided by his soul (which is probably just being fooled by his libido) to Karen's cause, or will he stick with his loyal friend but, in so doing, keep churning out the saleable drek that made him a honcho in the first place?
Other critics have pointed out that this thin plot lacks the heft of Mamet's masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross, a work of greater scope and more tragic consequences. But Speed-the-Plow is, at heart, a rat-a-tat comedy.
Bobby and Charlie's banter - especially as embodied by Piven and Esparza in the current revival at the Ethel Barrymore - reaches a comic bliss that the author's recent Romance and November, both pure farces, strained much harder to achieve.
What does hold Plow back from being entirely satisfying are its character gaps and ambiguities. In the first scene, we don't sense that Bobby is so conflicted about his place in the universe that he can suddenly have his consciousness rocked by a one-night stand. Compounding that credibility problem is the date between Bobby and Karen. Not only is the sequence nearly boring, but Mamet is maddeningly unclear about whether Karen is spouting pseudo-intellectual drivel or truly meaningful thoughts about society, God and death. Either way, her speeches aren't convincing enough to make a studio exec change his spots so instantaneously.
Also, it's never stated explicitly that Bobby can make only one film, so how come nobody sug