Plot: John (William H. Macy) is a self absorbed professor with a lot on his mind, as he is up for tenure and the hearing happens soon. This is the moment he has waited for his entire career, so he is in the process of buying his dream home and getting more out of life, things the security of tenure will allow. As he prepares to leave his classroom, he is approached by Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), a nervous student who feels left behind in his class. She is failing the course and doesn’t understand much of the curriculum, but John isn’t skilled at direct, honest answers. The two are self interested, neither can reach the other and when John touches Carol’s shoulder for a moment, it sets a chain of events into motion that will change his life. This leads to Carol making a sexual harassment claim, which would ruin John’s chance at tenure and perhaps even his career.
Entertainment Value: Oleanna is based on David Mamet’s two person play and was quite controversial, as he broached the subject of sexual harassment head on and some felt he had chosen the wrong side. In the movie, we see John act in inappropriate ways, such as the unsolicited shoulder touch and his off color dialogue at one point, but we also see Carol twist the events into claims of attempted rape, so when both sides of a dispute are shown as unreliable, some viewers struggle to balance that. I don’t think Mamet’s script chooses a side at all, but shows both as flawed, selfish people who have no issue stepping on others to achieve their personal goals. This is much more interesting to watch than the usual “white hat, black hat” narrative we are given, as it provokes some thought on the issue and on people in general. The movie consists of two people in several conversations, so it is all dialogue and performance, but it never feels slow and keeps you reeled in. But I can see how some might not appreciate this kind of bare bones, character driven piece. I found Oleanna to be a superbly written and performed picture, one that earns a high recommendation.
This movie doesn’t just focus on two characters, the entire movie is two people in conversation, so the casting choices were crucial. Other characters can be seen at times, but these are background roles and Oleanna hinges on the two leads, who have to carry the entire picture. The pressure had to be substantial, as the roles required the leads to be the central focus of the movie and to bring Mamet’s razor sharp, lightning fast dialogue to life. Thankfully, William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt are more than up to the task and while the dialogue doesn’t always sound natural, the actors really make the script shine. Mamet’s dialogue is immense fun to listen to and watch performed, but it does have the stage texture, so the characters don’t talk like normal people, which might throw some folks off. But that’s a quibble, as the performances are so strong and the exchanges feel believable, which is what counts. Macy and Eisenstadt are confident in the material and embrace the self absorbed nature of the characters, speaking over each other and interrupting when possible. I think both perform at an elite level here and more than do Mamet’s words justice.
The Disc: Indicator Series has given Oleanna a new high definition remaster, which looks excellent and makes this limited edition Blu-ray the definitive home video release of the picture. The image looks super sharp and shows remarkable detail, putting all previous editions to shame, to be honest. The clarity is striking, great fine detail and a clean, clear image throughout. The colors and contrast are natural and without issue, so this is a fantastic visual presentation. The extras include new interviews with both Macy and Eisenstadt, still photos, promotional materials, and the film’s trailer.