Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  William H. Macy, Debra Eisenstadt
Director:  David Mamet
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  99 Minutes
Release Date:  September 16, 2003

“I watched you for the entire semester exploit your paternal prerogative. And what is that but rape, I swear to God!”

Film *1/2

According to statistics, acquaintance rape and sexual harassment are amongst the least reported of all crimes.  That is a tragedy.  It is also stated that they are amongst the most falsely reported as well.  That too is a tragedy.

“Whatever side you take is wrong” the tagline to the film proclaims, setting the audience up for a power struggle between a liberal college professor named John (Macy) and his intellectually hapless student Carol (Eisenstadt).  It’s almost a line designed to make the drama immune to real criticism.  What it’s saying, in other words, is that your point of view on the film can be dismissed either because you’re a man OR you’re a woman.

So very much like the character of John, I feel myself on the defensive right out of the box.  Charges have been made against me in a blindsiding matter, and I have been dared to prove them wrong even though I don’t HAVE to.  And if I begin by conceding that matters such as these do intend to involve a lot of gray area with difficulty discerning between black and white, it won’t spare me the outrage some will feel when I say I sympathized with John.

Early in the film, Carol comes to him in private for help.  She is failing his class, and for good reason…listening to her try to speak intelligently is an exercise in tedium, and when we listen to an excerpt from a report she turned in for a class, we can’t help but wonder how the poor young woman ever got into college in the first place, writing tripe that most junior high level English teachers would have flunked.

Their meeting seems friendly enough, and it seems very clear that John is not interested in her nor attracted to her in a sexual way.  While he tries to make her feel not-so-stupid, he is consoling...admittedly even a little patronizing.  When she begins to wax hysterical, he takes her shoulders and tries to calm her down. 

That is essentially act one.  Act two comes when we learn that Carol has filed sexual harassment claims against John for that very meeting.  John is up for tenure at the college, and getting it means being able to close on a new house for his wife and family.  They meet two more times in private, and each time, the situation grows worse for John.  Carol felt offended by John’s patronizing attitude, by his hand on her shoulder, which she claims doesn’t become non-sexual just because he says it isn’t, and so on.  She accuses him of being elitist…and anyone who’s attended college will know professors do tend to act that way; this is not new.  How else can a teacher teach unless both teacher and student accept the fact that the teacher is the smarter of the two?

Soon, it grows even worse, as Carol throws in bogus accusations of battery and attempted rape.  At that point, John has already lost his bid for tenure, and now is faced with losing his job and criminal proceedings as well…all for simply trying to help the impossibly helpless.

Is Carol to blame?  No.  Carol speaks constantly of her “group”, which is never named, but whom she is acting on behalf of.  Carol’s presence in the entire movie is that of a mindless automaton, incapable of thinking for herself, but capable of spewing back any thought or piece of information ingrained into her by outside sources.  Was it her idea to bring a rape accusation?  Go back and watch act one again, and ask…was it even her idea to accuse John of anything at all?

Sexual harassment is, of course, a terrible reality in today’s workplace, and should be rooted out and corrected wherever it exists.  But can we be honest with ourselves?  For the wrong person, the accusation of sexual harassment is an ugly tool and a power play, and can ruin an innocent life when wielded falsely.  It can lead to an environment of such fear and anxiety that men feel like they have to walk on eggshells every minute of the day.  As such, it’s an issue that requires open dialogue…men should listen to women’s concerns about the issue, and vice versa.

Which brings us to the real problem with Oleanna.  This is not a film designed to promote dialogue, but rather, inspire argument.  As a stage play, author David Mamet has spoken with surprise (and maybe even a little delight) about the terrible fights erupting in the lobbies after the curtain fell.  Couples going out on a date would go home not speaking to each other.

This film captures all of that hostility, and then some.  Macy and Eisenstadt are capable actors, but spending an hour and a half with them was like being a kid again trapped with my arguing parents.  The continual attempts to interrupt and/or out-shout one another becomes a test of patience for the audience.  And frankly, if men and women walk away from the film arguing about the issue of harassment, at least Mamet has kept them from discussing the merits of the film itself, of which there are none.

Mamet is a brilliant writer, and a more-than-capable director when it comes to adapting his own work for the screen.  I simply question his motivation with Oleanna.  Art should provoke discussion, but not resentment.

Video **

This is a simply staged movie with seemingly little attention paid to lighting, art design, or cinematography.  As such, there’s nothing spectacular about the video, which looks good enough, but doesn’t push the envelope of the medium.  Colors are generally natural looking, and images range from fairly sharp to slightly soft, with occasional light instances of noticeable grain.  Overall, it’s perfectly watchable, but unremarkable.

Audio **1/2

The simple stereo mix boasts some dynamic range from the lung power of the two stars…there’s very little music or other audio effects to talk about.  Panning effects are well-rendered and smooth, and the track seems clean and free from any distracting noise or interference.

Features *

Only a trailer.


Oleanna will definitely give you something to talk about after seeing it…the problem will be keeping your voice down.  It’s a film that takes a realistic look at a truly serious issue in our society, but does so with a heart for inspiring argument rather than understanding, and therefore adds to the problem instead of attempting to correct it.