Oleanna: David Mamet’s Poor Adaptation of his Own Play

David Mamet’s Oleanna, one of the least successful adaptations of a stage play that was overly schematic even in its original version.

This static, rather dull movie strives for, but never achieves, the same sort of intimacy and vigor achieved by such excellent chamber pieces as Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street” or Tom Noonan’s “What Happened Was.”

In this two-character drama, a college student (Debra Eisenstadt), who lacks personal confidence, appeals her poor grade to her professor (William H. Macy), an intellectually pompous academic who’s up for tenure and in the process of buying a new house. The professor misreads the girl’s confusion and offers to help her through the class. But the student falls under the influence of a militant women’s group on campus and files a sexual harassment suit against her teacher.

Mamet’s script is all about power games and the price of Political Correctness. The power arrangements between female student and male teacher shift as the girl succeeds in destroying the professor’s career and family life. The play raises some interesting questions about such timely issues as sexism and discrimination, but Mamet’s treatment is so verbose and sketchy that it’s painful to sit through the film. As an academic for close to two decades, I have to admit that some of what I heard on stage rang false.

The story lacks any humor or irony–it’s an agenda play of the preachiest kind. Just because a drama features a deviant philosophy, i.e. hatred of “Political Correctness,” doesn’t necessarily make it worthy or lively. That the movie is poorly directed and that the two leads can’t bring humanity or compassion to their roles, makes Oleanna’s flaws as a claustrophobic piece all the more noticeable.

I do recommend, however, that you see Mamet’s adaptation of Chekhov’s great play, Uncle Vanya, for director Louis Malle, now called Vanya on 42nd Street, which I will review next week.