Published on May 20th, 2016 | by Clint Davis
Glengarry Glen Ross 
Summary: Dripping with testosterone and desperation, this film is a masterclass in acting and screenwriting. Endlessly quotable dialogue spews from the mouths of five of the best actors in movie history. It's all muscle.
R | 100 min.
Director: James Foley
Screenplay: David Mamet (from his play)
Distribution: New Line Cinema
“What’s your name?”
The question is innocent enough. It’s one of a handful of basic, introductory phrases that everyone in the world has said at one time or another. But in Glengarry Glen Ross, no question is innocent and human decency is in short supply.
In this world, the answer goes:
“Fuck you. That’s my name! You know why, mister? Because you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight and I drove an $80,000 BMW. That’s my name. And your name is, ‘You’re wanting.’ You can’t play in the man’s game? You can’t close them? Then go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. You hear me, you fucking faggots?”
Even though the rain is pouring in New York during Glengarry Glen Ross, the city is hot. But not as hot as the mood inside the Premiere Properties real estate sales office. In there, it’s sweltering and a man can barely breathe.
Based on David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece of a play, Glengarry Glen Ross puts grown men inside a boiling pot and lets them sweat it out. Their livelihoods, reputations and pride are on the line. You’ve never seen desperation of this level on a movie screen.
The film follows a staff of four real estate salesmen and their milquetoast manager for one night and a morning as they boast, bitch, dream, reminisce, puff up their chests, insult each other and try to sell.
These guys aren’t just trying to sell parcels of land to the uninterested schmucks who landed on their sales call list — they’re trying to sell notions of freedom and fairness to one another, with varying degrees of success. The men have been told by their bosses “downtown” that the two whose sales figures are lowest at the end of the month will be fired. Whoever sells the most gets a new Cadillac, second place gets a set of steak knives and the other two are out on the street. No more chances.
Ricky Roma (Al Pacino, in perhaps the last white-hot performance of his career) is the most confident man in the room. Ricky’s the top salesman in the office and seems to be the only one who can close a deal lately. Shelley Levene — or, “The Machine,” as Ricky affectionately calls him in what is clearly a reference to his former glory days — is played by Jack Lemmon in what is the film’s best performance. And that’s high praise because every performance in Glengarry Glen Ross is outstanding.
You want heavyweight actors? Aside from Pacino and Lemmon, the rest of the film’s small cast goes like this: Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Kevin Spacey. Those fellas combine for 26 total Oscar nominations and six wins. Throw in impeccable supporting performances from Alec Baldwin and Jonathan Pryce and you’ve got what can easily be considered among the best ensemble casts in movie history.
But for as much as Glengarry Glen Ross is an actor’s film, empathy and emotion are almost completely lacking in its frames. There’s an abundance of passion and pride but these guys are almost completely soulless. Lemmon’s character Shelley pulls the audience’s heartstrings for a few fleeting moments but he, too, is a shell that only works to live and loves to pile on when another character finds himself somehow on a lower rung than he.
Shelley’s daughter lies in a hospital, presumably withering away based on the phone calls we overhear the old man making several times during the film, and his sales numbers are in the basement. He’s the only one on the office sales board without a dollar next to his name for the current period. There was a time when Shelley was the top earner in the office — as he reminds us often — but he’s on a bad streak now.
The other guys are Dave Moss (Ed Harris), an emotional hothead who talks like a compassionate friend but might just be a master manipulator, George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), the shakiest hand in the group as well as the only one who may have a shred of conscience, and John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), the babysitter of the office who is constantly derided by his employees. Spacey’s character is definitely the heavy of the film but at the end of the day, nobody in Glengarry Glen Ross is really likable. It’s a movie full of flawed characters.
Actually, that’s putting it mildly. Glengarry Glen Ross is a movie full of assholes. Oh, and the dialogue in this movie makes HBO’s Game of Thrones sound like HBO’s Sesame Street.
When one character makes a costly — but well-meaning — mistake, he doesn’t get a “That’s OK” or a consoling pat on the back. He gets a verbal evisceration in front of several other characters.
“You’re fucking shit,” Pacino’s Ricky says to Spacey’s John after the aforementioned screw-up. “Where did you learn your trade, you stupid fucking cunt? You idiot. Who ever told you that you could work with men?”
As you can likely tell, Glengarry Glen Ross is not a universally enjoyable film. It speaks to a certain type of viewer and almost surely drives others away with vengeance. The ideal viewer of this film is someone who loves dialogue, but not just any dialogue, the kind that is so fast-paced and hardened that it can warp the minds of children. The ideal viewer doesn’t need action or romance to enjoy a movie — because there is neither of any to be found here. The ideal viewer also doesn’t mind that there isn’t a single female character in the entire picture.
It’s a sausage fest for the ages.
But is Glengarry Glen Ross a sexist picture? Its characters use words like “cunt,” “faggot” and “fairy” as biting insults and the only references to women are as sexual fantasies, dying daughters and spouses who carry their husbands’ testes in their purses. Call me crazy but I don’t think “sexist” is a label that can be applied to this movie.
While the women aren’t given screen time, they figure centrally into many of the main plot points in Glengarry Glen Ross — and they seem to be feared. Shelley makes a few desperately rash decisions based totally on his daughter’s wellbeing. And in a plot involving Ricky’s attempt to close a crucial sale, the buyer’s unseen, unnamed wife looms as the one person who can bring it down. While Ricky is easily able to make the man’s head spin with a dizzying web of words that somehow veers into a real estate sales pitch, the woman is much more confident in her stance.
The men in this film are not a credit to the gender. They’re sleazy, manipulative, dishonest and at the end of their ropes. They whine endlessly about the “weak” sales leads they are given by management, while bragging about how in the old days they used to make sales by “cold calling” people who weren’t interested to begin with.
What makes Glengarry Glen Ross one of the finest films of the 1990s is the combination of Mamet’s flawless script and the commitment from every actor in the cast. The dialogue is a blast to listen to and watching these bullish men face off with one another without the use of physical force is electrifying.
Not only are the lines interesting — which they are, as Mamet’s language is quite unlike anything you’ve likely ever heard — but the way they’re delivered is interesting. Pacino, Lemmon and Harris play fast and loose with punctuation and enunciation, while Baldwin takes confidence to a new level in his signature monologue that is meant to spur the sales staff into action. Baldwin’s lone scene has more quotable lines than many entire films.
Unlike other movies set in the world of cutthroat business, money is not something to be worshipped in Glengarry Glen Ross, rather it’s just a means to an end. The work is what’s worshipped in this film. These guys are slaves to the dollar, rather than masters of it. They’re working day and night to afford the next week’s lunches, or the next round of hospital treatments. But they take immense pride in their craft.
In the handful of five-star reviews I’ve written for this website, I’ve extolled on the genius of each film’s director. Interestingly, Glengarry Glen Ross director James Foley has been a bit of a one-hit wonder in terms of filmmaking. Since 1992, he’s directed a lot of so-so thrillers. Foley’s most interesting work post-Glengarry has been for television, where he’s directed episodes of NBC’s Hannibal and Netflix’s House of Cards. Currently he’s working on two sequels to 2015’s asinine Fifty Shades of Grey.
I’m not saying Foley didn’t do great work in keeping his actors laser focused and in adapting Mamet’s imposing play to the screen so smoothly, but there’s no question he was working with a chest of immaculate tools. Getting Pacino, Lemmon, Harris, Spacey and Arkin to give great performances is like coaching a starting lineup of Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell and Larry Bird to an NBA championship.
Glengarry Glen Ross is a film that no lover of dramatic acting and writing should miss. It got a lukewarm reception from audiences in 1992, coming in slightly under budget at the box office. But I asked Alec Baldwin’s character Blake what he had to say to people who opted to see The Last of the Mohicans over a screening of this film. His response?
“A loser is a loser.”
Note: I typically include a trailer for the film at this point but the 1992 trailer for Glengarry Glen Ross is so inexplicably bad I decided not to add it here. I’ve never seen a more atrocious trailer for what is such a great film. Save yourself two minutes and just watch the movie.