"State and Main" is the latest offering from David Mamet, the accomplished playwright-turned-screenwriter-turned-director, whose previous directing credits include the thrillers "House of Games" and "The Spanish Prisoner". Though most moviegoers would associate Mamet with profanity-laden dramas and thrillers (such as his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Glengarry Glen Ross"), the genres in which the bulk of his writing credits lie, the veteran writer/director has recently been staking new ground. Last year, his filmed version of the Terrence Rattigan play "The Winslow Boy" turned quite a few heads with its surprisingly faithful adaptation that seemed more Merchant-Ivory than Mamet. And now, with "State and Main", Mamet ventures into broad satire with a film about the comedy of errors unleashed when a Hollywood film production crew invades a small town.
The small town is Waterford, Vermont, where director Walt Price (William H. Macy of "Happy, Texas") has come to do his picture, entitled "The Old Mill". Apparently, his production crew was kicked out of the last town, and Waterford is the last resort. The army of Hollywood types that accompany him include shark-like producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer, seen recently in "Bounce"), lead actor Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin of "Outside Providence") who makes 14 year-old girls his 'hobby', lead actress Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker of "Sex in the City" fame), and Joe Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman of "Magnolia"), a playwright-turned-screenwriter that everybody takes advantage of (of course, nothing like that ever happens in Hollywood).
Reaction from the townsfolk of Waterford is mixed. The majority of the residents welcome the Hollywood film crew with open arms, including mayor George Bailey (Charles Durning of "The Last Supper"), his petty wife Sherry (Patti LuPone of "Summer of Sam"), local bookseller Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon, aka Mrs. Mamet), and a flirtatious high school student named Carla (Julia Stiles of "Down to You"). However, not everyone likes how 'Hollywood fever' has gripped Waterford, and their primary advocate is Doug MacKenzie (Clark Gregg of "The Usual Suspects"), a local lawyer with hungry political aspirations, and who also happens to be Ann's fiancé.
As the farce unfolds, the film's numerous subplots slowly weave together until all hell breaks loose for both the production crew and the residents of Waterford. Barrenger gets himself in trouble by consorting with Carla, Claire refuses to bare her breasts in the film despite agreeing to do so in her contract, the star-struck mayor and his wife go overboard in hosting a dinner for the Hollywood big-wigs, a hapless production assistant (Todd Poudrier of "The Perfect Storm") tries to get some time off as his wife is about to give birth, while Joe must constantly rewrite the script as 'deficiencies' in the Waterford site are discovered, such the town's Old Mill having burned down many years ago or it being illegal to kill a horse for the 'dead horse scene'.
Fortunately for Joe, he is offered writing assistance by Ann, who has a play of her own to get off the ground. Not surprisingly, a romantic attraction develops between them, which further enrages MacKenzie, who is already determined to run the Hollywood types out of town.
While "State and Main" is not the type of film that one would consider 'laugh out loud' funny, the script is rife with wry observations on the absurd world of big-budget filmmaking, which create a number of the film's memorable moments, such as Price trying to insert a product placement for a 'dot-com' company into the film (which is a period piece), or a couple of local geezers commenting on the latest box office tallies in the trades. However, there's more at work here than merely satirizing the movie-making business. The theme of redemption permeates throughout the film, both in the actions of the characters as well as in the 'movie' within the movie, and it is most eloquently expressed when Joe finds himself confronted with a difficult choice-- to tell the truth and sacrifice his Hollywood career, or to uphold a lie, thereby saving it.
But where "State and Main" really sparkles is in the dialogue. For anyone familiar with Mamet's writing, his characters usually speak in clipped sentences (often barbed one-liners) that are uttered in a staccato fashion. While the characters in "State and Main" speak more naturally than what audiences saw in "The Spanish Prisoner", the cynical observations and clever turns of phrase are still present. Mamet is a master of the spoken word, and the film's wealth of memorable lines is a testament to his 'gift of gab', such as when characters concede that 'It's not a lie... it's a gift for fiction', or 'An associate producer credit is what you give to your secretary instead of a raise'. Interestingly enough, there's even a snide remark about the 'absurdity of the electoral process', which is remarkably timely, given the US Presidential election snafu of recent weeks.
To execute this farce, Mamet has assembled a talented ensemble of actors. A number of the actors hail from last year's ensemble tour de force "Magnolia", including William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Jay, and Clark Gregg. Though they all deliver fantastic (not to mention tongue-in-cheek) performances, Hoffman comes out on top as a gifted writer who seems insecure in normal, everyday conversation. There seems to be a genuine connection between him and Rebecca Pidgeon, who plays a smart and sophisticated love interest with much aplomb. Veteran character actor David Paymer, who usually fades into the background in most of his roles, is out in full-force in this film, playing a Hollywood heavy who either gets his way or starts suing. Finally, Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker seem to have no difficulty in playing capricious movie stars-- they must have plenty of experience to draw from.
Anyone familiar with how the movie industry actually works, or at least has a passing interest, will certainly have a ball with "State and Main". Even if you don't, the acerbic humor of Mamet's most accessible film to date won't go unnoticed. Crackling with great dialogue, unbelievable-but-probably-true situations, and a number of gifted actors, "State and Main" is a worthwhile stopover, at least for a couple of hours.