The best part of this invigorating and exasperating film of David Mamet's 1992 play about a college student who accuses her fortyish professor of sexual harassment happens when it's over. No insult intended. It's just that debating the meaning of this sexual bonfire of the vanities with the person you see it with is half the fun. In adapting and directing his two-character drama, Mamet loses some theatrical immediacy but none of his wicked, ferocious talent to provoke. Mamet knows we bring along our own agendas, including opinions on Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas and Paula Jones vs. Bill Clinton. Perhaps the never-mentioned title – it's taken from a folk song about a 19th-century Utopia – expresses Mamet's longing for a time before the plague of political correctness. No matter. Oleanna shakes up audiences like no movie in years.
Even before the words rapist and cunt are uttered and talk escalates into violence, the battle lines are drawn. In a campus office, John, played with customary acuteness by Mamet regular William H. Macy, is flexing his power. Tenure is in the offing, and John is on the phone arranging to buy a home for his family. Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), a shy, drably dressed student, stands by anxiously. John nods in apology but holds the line. He's the teacher; she can wait.
Mamet sets the scene with subtle menace. It also helps that Eisenstadt, who makes a stunning film debut, brings out reserves of strength in Carol. At first she seems a shell of nerves. Carol doesn't understand John's course; she thinks she is stupid. John offers comfort. He says he likes her, that he once thought he was stupid. He jokes about the jerk things you keep in your head like how "the rich copulate less often than the poor." He pats her shoulder and offers tutoring.
At their next meeting, same office, the power positions shift. Carol, with the advice of "her group," has complained about John to the tenure board. He is sexist, elitist, a teller of sexually explicit stories. She wants to leave; he tries to stop her. At their final meeting, same office, Carol's charges escalate to attempted rape. John is frantic to save his job and his reputation, but Carol makes demands that lead to an explosion.
Is Mamet using John to skewer smug male academics who exploit their power to put down students? Or is he using Carol to bash women who exploit the threat of legal action to launch a feminist McCarthyism? Mamet's incendiary writing and the potent performances are teasingly ambiguous. Though he exposes the widening gulf between the sexes, Mamet leaves the audience to find ways to explain it. That's what makes Oleanna such a powerhouse; it's a brilliant dare.