Picks and Pans Review: House of Games

updated 11/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Outside the drab, smoky room where a high-stakes poker game is heating up, confidence man Joe Mantegna is disclosing the crafty tricks of his trade to Lindsay Crouse, an author-shrink researching compulsive behavior. Whispering conspiratorially, Mantegna tells her the player raising the stakes just now is bluffing. He knows this because every time the man tries to fake a hand he twists his ring. In the world of hustle, that kind of giveaway is known as a "tell." Screenwriter David (The Untouchables) Mamet, the Pulitzer prizewinning playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) here making his film debut as a director, also has a tell. His overly calculated style, with actors posed in meditative close-up, suggests—Lord help us—that he's making art. Relax. Mamet's movie is a dazzling scam, a Sting for eggheads. If you buy the profundity, you miss the fun. This male world of conmanship holds a full house of charged entertainment. As he proved in his Tony-winning role in Glengarry, Mantegna is without peer in capturing the seductive rhythms of the con. He and co-stars Mike Nussbaum and J.T. Walsh (other veterans of Mamet plays) perfectly personify the steal-but-don't-harm code of ethics among thieves. Women, as in most of Mamet's work, are outsiders. As the psychiatrist, Crouse, Mamet's wife of 10 years, has none of the romantic dash of the sleazeballs she's observing. They enjoy what they do. Her success at writing best-selling self-help guides has left her guilt-ridden. Isn't my job a con, she asks herself? Mamet's hardly original insinuation is more like: Isn't everybody's? Despite her chilly manner, Crouse is soon responding to these larcenists as a source of excitement absent in her life. She becomes Mantegna's lover, his accomplice and his mark. At first Crouse seems to be substituting close-cropped hair and a severe wardrobe for a performance, but she develops the role into something mesmerizing. When she learns she's been had she's stunned, then energized. Significantly, the revenge she takes isn't played by the rules. House of Games impresses less in exploring Mamet's misanthropy than as an example of his expertise in sleight-of-hand. No matter how cheated you may feel after the movie ends, you'll relish the way Mamet sucked you into the game. (R)

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