Oleanna Movie Review
This is not true, however, of David Mamet's Oleanna, which fearlessly addressed the issues of sexual harassment with the subtlety of a slap in the face. Oleanna was first a play that made theater audiences upset and angry before it became a movie that died at the box office, probably killed by its political content. Opinions have differed about the play/film's effectiveness. This reviewer felt that the film tried a little too hard to make the audience squirm -- but it also forced me to think.
There are two characters, a university professor (William H. Macy) and a female student, Carol (Debra Eisenstadt). All action takes place in his office, beginning when she comes to see him about a failing grade. He does not make a pass, but drones on in that self-indulgent, conceited, pseudo-intellectual manner that college professors affect, while Carol becomes more and more confused by his monologue. At the end, he makes a slightly obscene joke and touches her shoulder in a way that she subsequently misconstrues as suggestive. In this, she is motivated by a never-identified "group" (presumably feminists or ACLU) that convince her to bring charges against him, threatening to destroy his job, his marriage, and his tenure.
Oleanna seems to me to be basically one-sided -- Carol's grievance is portrayed as manufactured, and her harassment charges are an opportunistic attempt to steal the academic success she cannot earn. At the very least, the film makes the serious (and very unpopular) point that the ambiguous definitions of sexual harassment, mostly written into law in the 1980s, have empowered feminists to destroy careers without proving that harassment ever took place. Thus, the controversy.
However, the professor is a jerk who seems oblivious of his power over his students' futures, and Mamet's portrayal of the prototypical male academic is so negative (and I'm sorry to say, accurate) that it is not surprising if both genders were offended. Probably they had never seen a movie without a hero (or heroine) before. Personally, I don't find most university professors any more or less admirable than whiny, litigious losers like Carol, so the fact that there is no admirable character in the film doesn't bother me.
Both actors are good, Mamet's direction is good, and the script deserves credit for actually daring to make the audience mad. That takes guts. However, if you're looking for a fun, or even an uplifting, film to rent this weekend, Oleanna is not that film.
Hands off the merchandise.