What is it with Presidential offspring? They keep springing onto the screen. Between two giddy little studio romps about the problems of being First Daughter and having cumbersome Secret Service agents always underfoot--Chasing Liberty and the forthcoming First Daughter--comes David Mamet's Spartan, and boy, is it ever! Spartan and sparse and alienatingly oblique. Say this for the First Brat school of farce: A fits into A-prime, or doesn't. With Mamet at the controls, writing and directing whatever plot whims may or may not come into his mind, you just throw the story bones on the floor and let the audience pick and choose what they can.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights go, Mamet is a man with a very distinct voice but less vision--and when he gets near the thriller genre (Homicide, Heist), he becomes positively tongue-tied and makes the audience work overtime to figure what the hell is happening. Basically "a word man"--his back-and-forth Ping-Pong dialogue is like arias for a knowing actor--he begins to falter when he has to go the long distance of a plot. Of late, he has complicated the matter by trying to keep his audience in a perpetual state of surprise, flip-flopping plots and characters willy-nilly to show how "clever" he is.

In Spartan, Mamet calls a lot of wrong shots, and they start right out of the chute, with a military operation in which hard-nosed Secret Service man Val Kilmer puts new recruit Derek Luke through savage hoops. It is a wholly unnecessarily exercise, signifying nothing, introducing characters in a deep state of murk. The absence of dialogue that would establish the situation, by definition and devious design, leaves the audience out in the cold, running breathlessly alongside the picture. And there's no one approaching a real character to hold onto--only stick men for Mamet to have his way with.

The crisis central to the film is reached coyly through the back door of what appears to be the White House: It seems the President's daughter has been snatched from her Harvard dorm by white slavers who, not realizing who she is, have shipped her off to Dubai, where blonde beauty is appreciated. You may want to pause right there and chew on that given for a while until it's remotely digestible. Perhaps constant confusion is the only way this would play, and Mamet lays out the smokescreen thickly to offset the story's absurdity.

William H. Macy, the archetypal Mamet actor on stage and screen, is saddled with the non-part of a political operative on a good-guy/bad-guy seesaw. You dismiss him out of hand, because the guy who created this character on paper can't be trusted to hew a convincing, consistent line of development. If Bill Macy shoots blanks, you've got a dud.

-Harry Haun