Mafia Fable Of Grasshopper And Ant

Posted: October 21, 1988

You might think that a rock is a more powerful weapon than paper. But not in the game of rock-paper-scissors.

You might think that the sleaze factor would easily overpower the whimsy factor. But not in Things Change, an offbeat fable much in the spirit of Being There.

You might think the grasshopper would easily gobble the ant. But not in this collaboration of hard-boiled playwright David Mamet and soft-yolked cartoonist Shel Silverstein, respectively the creators of memorably sleazy and whimsical characters. As directed by Mamet in the spare, elliptical style of his feature debut, House of Games, Things Change - the story of a humble shoeshine man mistaken for a Mafia grandee - is a fractured fairy tale for adults.

The ant, you might think, is Gino (Don Ameche), a Sicilian immigrant become shoeshine man, who agrees to take the rap for a Mafia hit in order to realize his cherished dream of owning a fishing boat. When he spies the trappings of grasshopperdom - the plush furnishings and plusher women - the ant wants to be the big guy. The grasshopper, you might think, is the regional mob boss, Mr. Green (Mike Nussbaum), who arranges the legal machinations that will put Gino behind bars for a three-to-five-year sentence.

Enter Jerry (Joe Mantegna), a low-level mobster, assigned to baby-sit Gino over the weekend before his Monday court appearance. Feeling that the angelic Gino needs a last fling before his stint in the slammer, devilish Jerry suggests an impromptu jaunt to Lake Tahoe, where the Sicilian-accented Gino is presumed to be a Mafia bigwig. Asked which "family" Gino heads, Jerry evasively responds, "He's the guy behind the guy behind the guy."

Gino and Jerry are promptly given a VIP suite gratis, comped in the hotel shops and treated like high-rollers in the casino.

Pure-hearted Gino and heartless Jerry are the very embodiments of the whimsy and sleaze fueling this eccentric farce. Their differences are brought out into highest possible comic relief by the contrasting performances of Ameche and Mantegna.

Except for his droopy moustache, Ameche, that 80-year-old Hollywood stalwart, plays Gino as though every vowel, every gesture must be a meticulous circular motion, like that of a shoeshine man buffing a brogan to a gleam. Mantegna, who is to Mamet what Marlene Dietrich was to Josef Von Sternberg - the incarnation of amorality - recites his lines with a patented lack of inflection. This, while his popeyes trace wild figure-eights, in the fear that his Jerry will be found out as a fraud.

Mantegna's studied lack of inflection serves to underline the wit of Mamet and Silverstein's script: "They always like you when you're someone else," observes Jerry, explaining the VIP treatment.

Though telling any more of the plot would undermine the film's subversion of the grasshopper-and-ant fable, it must also be said that Robert Prosky is memorable as a new-world Mafia don aspiring to old-country simplicity.

The moral to this gentle fable is: Sometimes whimsy is stronger than iron.

THINGS CHANGE * * *

Produced by Michael Hausman; directed by David Mamet; written by David Mamet and Shel Silverstein; photography by Juan Ruiz Anchia; music by Alaric Jans; distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.

Gino - Don Ameche

Jerry - Joe Mantegna

Joseph Vincent - Robert Prosky

Frankie - J.J. Johnston

Parent's guide: PG-13 (posterior nudity, profanity, adult themes)

Showing at: area theaters

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