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Is David Mamet’s Things Change (1988) The Ultimate Con Game?



Say what you want about the mob, but no one can deny its strong sense of community. Without it, you have no organization. Maintaining that connection carries with it the constant fear that you may do something that removes you from the group (if not the world). Much of that bond is determined by family loyalty. Perhaps you were born into this circle and had no choice. You learn from an early age that everyone has a role to play and a certain amount of movement within the group is inevitable. But when you’re the big man, you’re always wondering if someone else wants to become the big man, thereby moving you out of the way - permanently.


 


But let’s look at it from a different perspective. Let’s say you’re on the outside looking in. Maybe you’re not even looking in, but the mob is looking at you. Maybe you’re like Gino (Don Ameche), a rather meek Sicilian shoe shiner who works in a quiet shoe repair shop in downtown Chicago. Two men enter Gino’s shop, hand him an address, and tell him to show up at a specific time. Confused, Gino tells the men he’s a shoe shiner. He’s told, “There will be shoes there.”



When he arrives for the appointment, Gino is faced with a proposition. Because he bears an uncanny resemblance to a high-level gangster accused of murder, Gino is asked by a local mob boss to take the man’s place. In return for a three-year prison stint, Gino will be lavishly rewarded with anything he wants. And what does he want? His own boat in Sicily.



The deal is struck on a Friday and Gino promises to appear in court to confess on Monday morning. But to make sure Gino sticks to his word, he’s given an escort, a lower-level gangster named Jerry (Joe Mantegna). We aren’t sure what happened previously, but Jerry has screwed something up with his Chicago bosses and is working his way up from the bottom, wearing an apron and washing dishes when we first meet him. His mistake wasn’t enough to make him disappear, but it puts him back at square one. Jerry’s going to have to prove himself, and all he has to do is keep an eye on Gino until he can deliver him to court.



Yet Jerry can’t help bending the rules. (We gather that this type of behavior is what got him in hot water in the first place.) Rather than sit with Gino in a crummy Chicago hotel room until Monday morning, Jerry - on the mob’s money - takes Gino to Vegas, where Jerry maneuvers his way to getting them carte blanche at a posh hotel and casino.


We can see why the mob keeps Jerry around. He can spin all kinds of BS and make it sound like the real thing. Jerry talks in “Mamet speak,” a lingo created by playwright, author, and director David Mamet which often includes repeating ordinary words and phrases with a different rhythm or inflection, making the listener feel a level of anxiety as if he’s being interrogated in order to unearth some secret information.


Although he thinks on his feet and can talk his way through most tough spots, Jerry actually believes he’s a master of the “less is more” type of deception, but he soon learns he’s still on the bottom rung in that department. Gino is the real master; this shoe shiner isn’t attempting to deceive anyone. He’s simply being Gino, a quiet, dignified gentleman who carries himself with refinement and charm, so much so that everyone at the hotel and casino believes Gino is not “the man,” but rather “the man behind the man,” a high-profile Mafia Don. Gino’s facial expressions and body language aren’t attempting to hide anything at all, yet those who encounter him don’t know that his posture, gait, and comportment are those of a modest shoeshine man.


It’s the perfect con. Or it could be, if that was your goal.



Before we know it, Gino gains some unwanted attention and is invited to the home of a Lake Tahoe crime boss named Joseph Don Giuseppe Vincent (Robert Prosky, in a role originally intended for Ameche). Don Giuseppe is suspicious of Gino until he realizes their connection, solidified by a coin Gino presents to him. Rather than killing a man he thought was an impostor, Don Giuseppe wants to spend significant time with Gino, a man he shares a bond with, yet is different from all the other people in his life. There’s a need for companionship that Don Giuseppe hasn’t had in many years, perhaps ever. When you’re “the man,” how do you know the difference between a person who’s truly genuine and someone who simply wants something? Every meeting or conversation is likely a prelude to some type of deal. But Gino presents a different type of loyalty, one that is authentic.


Mamet’s powerhouse film from one year earlier, House of Games (1987), focused on con games, the people who play them, and the consequences of their actions. Things Change is a kinder, gentler look at deception, but more than that, it’s an examination of truth, friendship, and trust. The genius of the character of Gino is that he is deceiving no one. He’s being himself, similar to the way Chance (Peter Sellers) behaves in Being There (1979). Unlike House of Games, Gino’s deception in Things Change is not diabolical. It’s not even intentional. Gino is who he is: genuine, honorable, trustworthy.


What makes Gino so compelling is that he believes others will be just as genuine, honorable, and trustworthy as he is. When Jerry tells Gino to simply walk away from the deal and live free, Gino is aghast, responding with, “I gave my word.” To Gino, that settles it. Done. Gino’s weakness - which Jerry knows and Gino doesn’t - is that the mob has no intention of holding up their end of the bargain.



Yet Gino is no fool. As the finale nears, he understands what’s at stake and makes comedic attempts to hide himself when all other attempts to come clean to Don Giuseppe have failed. Each time Gino seeks to tell all, Don Giuseppe has another of his hangers-on pulling him away not only from Gino’s confession but also from true friendship.



Jerry is different. Everyone loves Gino because they believe he’s a man of enormous power. Imagine how they would treat him if they knew he was a humble shoe shiner. The Chicago mob treats Jerry with scorn and derision because he’s a screwup. It doesn’t matter if he made one mistake or a lifetime of mistakes: He’s a screwup and is treated as one. Yet Jerry puts on a good front at the hotel, the casino, everywhere. While he gets frustrated with Gino, it’s clear Jerry cares about him. He sees something both genuine and unexplainable in the man, something he doesn’t have, perhaps something he’s never even seen in another person. Everyone Jerry knows is out to get something. Gino wants something too: a boat in Sicily.


Jerry’s suggestion of spending the weekend in Vegas seems to be self-serving. He initially wants to get out of the Chicago hotel because of his own boredom rather than the magnanimous gesture of giving Gino the sendoff of a lifetime. But something happens along the way as Jerry begins to observe what makes Gino tick, understanding that not only are they miles apart in their ways of looking at the world, but that Gino has something he doesn’t.



When I first saw The Maltese Falcon (1941) as a teenager, what fascinated me most was the fact that everyone was lying. Had Gino been a character in that movie, he would’ve lasted about 30 seconds. In a world where everyone is dishonest, deceitful, corrupt, and heartless, a person of pure goodness doesn’t have a chance. Yet Gino, unconcerned that any misstep could be his last, has nothing to hide. He has a clean conscience. He’s true to himself, even if he’s the only one in the universe who can say that. He doesn’t change, but perhaps Jerry, Don Giuseppe, and others do. Perhaps we do as well. Perhaps things really do change.


Things Change is available on a Region B Blu-ray from Indicator and can be rented on various streaming platforms.


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