Things Change

It’s very possible that in Things Change, veteran actor Don Ameche has given his best performance. This may be because it’s a role completely unlike anything Ameche has played before.

Ameche plays Gino, a simple shoeshine man from the old country (Sicily), living his modest existence in Chicago and minding his own business. Then, things change: His resemblance to a noted Mafioso is noticed when the hit man is arrested on a murder charge. Some mob bigshots offer Gino a deal: If he’ll take the rap for the murder, they’ll set him up pretty when he gets out of jail in three years or so.

Gino thinks about it, figures it’s an offer he cannot refuse, and accepts. All that remains before handing over his confession is to wait the weekend out in the company of a mob bodyguard, Jerry (Joe Mantegna).

Jerry, however, gets a little antsy in their cramped hotel room. He comes up with the bright idea of treating Gino to a weekend in Lake Tahoe before handing the old boy over. When they get to Tahoe, because of a series of misunderstandings, the entire town comes to believe that Gino is a powerful (if very quiet) Chicago Don.

This is an impression that Jerry is happy to encourage, especially since the duo is scoring free hotel suites and unlimited credit in the casinos. As Jerry confides to someone who wonders exactly who this Gino is: “Babe … this is the guy, behind the guy, behind the guy.” ‘Nuff said.

As this dicey impersonation continues, it becomes more difficult to sustain, especially when “Don” Gino is summoned to the lakeside retreat of a real godfather (Robert Prosky).

Things Change is the second film directed by playwright David Mamet, and it’s comparatively lighter than his first, House of Games. But like that film, Things Change is oddly, seductively shaded, and also features exceptionally sharp dialogue (Mamet wrote the script with Shel Silverstein). Mamet isn’t the smoothest director, but he always seems to find a new way of seeing things. Smoothness can come later.

He has a wonderful way with individual sequences, such as the gambling foray in which Gino wins and then loses big, and the meeting between Gino and Prosky’s capo. The highest wish-fulfillment count comes when Gino and Jerry pick up a couple of showgirls from the hotel review and share wine and song with them in their suite’s comically Roman-bath-like Jacuzzi.

Mamet also gets great chemistry between his leading men. Mantegna, the con man from House of Games, is terrific at playing the two-bit hood who’ll never be an effective gangster because his heart is too tender.

Ameche gives a largely silent performance, using his eyes and his long face to express an unexpected subtlety. When he does speak, it is in a flawless Italian-American accent, in which we can hear the echoes of a hard life of work, small reward, and newfound wonder. The forthcoming Cocoon II notwithstanding, Things Change is the screen gem of Ameche’s long acting career.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

The movie seems to have been completely forgotten, but apparently I enjoyed it. Ameche came to Seattle for interviews, and I spent an hour talking to this genteel and thoughtful gentleman, perhaps the classiest interview experience I’ve had. The film had a notably awful poster, pushing the buddy-movie aspect. The cast includes lots of Mamet regular or types, including William H. Macy (and his future bride Felicity Huffman, in her first movie).

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