Picks and Pans Review: Things Change

updated 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A sweet Sicilian shoeshine man, played by 80-year-old Cocoon Oscar-winner Don Ameche, has agreed to take a murder rap for a Mafia chief. A low-level mob screwup (Joe Mantegna) is assigned to keep Ameche on ice in a Chicago hotel room for the weekend and take him to court on Monday. The old man will testify, do two to five years in prison and then claim his reward: a ticket back to Sicily and a fishing boat. Simple, huh? Not in this triumphantly comic fable from playwright David (Speed-the-Plow) Mamet. Following up his debut as a film director in last year's dark-hued thriller House of Games, Mamet takes a lighthearted tone. But the characters in his screenplay, written with cartoonist-children's book author Shel Silverstein, move across the venal, violent landscape Mamet knows best. Unable to sit tight in Chicago, the fidgety Mantegna treats Ameche to a weekend fling at a Lake Tahoe resort where he passes the old boy off as a visiting don. The two live it up until the local mob chief, Robert (Hill Street Blues) Prosky, demands a meeting with Ameche that promises to get somebody killed. Mamet works dazzling variations on the mistaken identity plot, pitting the crooks against Ameche's old-world honor with hilarious and surprisingly touching results. Things do change, even for the mob. It's not hard to see why Mantegna and Ameche shared the Venice Film Festival's Best Actor prize. Mantegna, a virtuoso at playing Mamet lowlifes, has never been better. Ameche rises superbly to the greatest acting challenge of his career. He manages the old man's broken English, stooped walk and unshakable dignity with subtle skill; he is perfection. The film is also studded with first-rate cameos from such Mamet stage regulars as Mike Nussbaum, J.J. Johnston and W.H. Macy. Some things don't change: Mamet is without peer at harvesting wit from a wicked world. (PG)

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