State and Main A-
Year Released: 2000
It's a very average town. Norman Rockwell country. White picket fences. Nicely trimmed lawns. You can see the town priest, the town mailman, the town doctor and the town mayor bustling down the street tipping their hats to one another as they cheerily meander toward their workplaces. Wouldn't you know, old codgers sit around the coffee shop discussing the new traffic light.
David Mamet disrupts the quaint little burg of Waterford, Vermont when an independent film production comes to town. The project is running out of money, the teamsters don't have enough donuts, the screenwriter has misplaced his typewriter and the lead actor (Alec Baldwin) has a hankering for little girls.
On top of that, the cinematographer wants to smash the church mural to get his brilliant shot and an upwardly mobile townie wants to sue the production for a share of the profits. As you can see, lots of wackiness ensues.
There was a time when David Mamet was an exceptional playwright. As he grew in fame, he became more and more Mamet-esque, which is never a good thing because you become convinced that your style and form is the thing, you know? The thing...the inflection of the voice, y'see...is the thing.
A wise man once said (and Mamet will remind us, you see, remind us of what the wise man said) that the play is the thing. And...(pause) and for me...(ellipsis), it's about...about...about integrity. About purity. About taking a...significant pause after...every third word.
Well, his plays have started to become bogged down in those clever linguistic tricks of the Mamet trade. Fortunately for the screengoing audience, his films have existed within mannered genres like the Hitchcock film (The Spanish Prisoner) and the period drama (The Winslow Boy), so the pitter-patter speak doesn't feel distracting. Naturalism doesn't play much of a part in Mamet country.
State and Main is a farce. Since Mamet isn't the most proficient behind-the-camera filmmaker, every time he tries to pull off a sight gag he falls flat on his face. There are at least two moments, one involving broken glass falling on a person's head and another where characters emerge from a doorway when they're not supposed to -- both of which depend on good timing with the camera. Mamet flubs them.
No matter. State and Main is just too doggoned charming to fail. I don't mean that it begs for your approval, no. Like a Preston Sturgess film or Christmas lights, you enjoy it because it's vibrant, colorful and there's always something happening.
Then there's the occasional odd twist, such as having leading man Alec Baldwin play the pedophile and Philip Seymour Hoffman (the schlub from Happiness) as your romantic lead, who, of course, is the screenwriter. Who'd a thunk it?
Hoffman stars as Joseph Turner White, idealistic playwright turned hack screenwriter. His script for The Old Mill is in chaos, since they're gonna shoot in a town which, as fate would have it, does not have an old mill. They have no more money in the budget to construct said old mill, so he has to rewrite. What's he supposed to do? How do you make a movie called The Old Mill without having an old mill?
Nobody listens to Joe. He's bespectacled, thoughtful, open and honest -- completely the antithesis of double-speaking director Walt (William H. Macy, as always spectacular) and cutthroat producer Marty (David Peymer). This guy ain't gonna survive in Hollywood. They'll eat him alive.
Not surprisingly, Joe spends much of his time wandering through town discussing local history with the nice gal who runs the bookstore, Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon), who's as smart as a whip. By discussing the history of the town with her, it feeds into inspiration for the script. "It's not about The Old Mill at all -- it's about purity!"
Which is really all that State and Main is about, too. The Boy Scouts of America should line up by the droves to watch it, since Joe and Ann stand up for truth, justice and the American Way. There are second chances to be had, even for screenwriters on the verge of hack corruption.
Mamet, of course, is clever enough to realize that Joe would never, ever be able to beat Hollywood -- that would just be false. Like a good card player, Mamet doesn't welsh on his bet to deliver the old fashioned movie, but he's smart enough to keep some of his cards hidden. There's some cynicism which lurks under the surface, occasionally peeking through.
Justice is rewarded, yes, but evil is not necessarily punished. (Maybe it gets rewarded, too.)
Okay, so you've got yer cute little movie with a winning love story. Ya got yer funny antics during pre-production of an indie film. The in-jokes might go over the heads of some folks who are unfamiliar with the industry, but even those lucky people will get swept off their feet by the aw-shucks sweetness.
What impressed me most of all were the twists. These nice little moments reminded me that Mamet created The Spanish Prisoner and is a good pal of magician Ricky Jay (who has a small role). There are illusions and reversals of fortune which revolve around Hoffman's quest for purity.
A wonderful scene where Joe gently rebuffs a naked actress (Sarah Jessica Parker) who wants to throw herself at him turns into the genuine suspense of trying to hide her while his real girlfriend (Pidgeon) shows up to help him type the script. He has to hide the actress while the girlfriend wanders around in the room. Joe sidesteps questions and tries to get her out.
It's a predictable suspense scene which Moliere would be proud of, but the thing which is most amazing is what happens after the inevitable outcome. We've seen this scene a million times in a million movies, always the look of shock and recognition of having been duped while our hero blubbers through some excuse. The way Mamet plays the climax of the scene is completely original and, just maybe, unprecedented.
That's why State and Main is so good. Like the good magician, Mamet plays some tricks on us which cause bristles of amazement. Wow -- he really did that! Nobody does that! What a good idea!
There's one other twist involving Hoffman's redemption which is the third act reversal, but by golly I'll be hog-poked or doggoned if I'll give it away!
Review published 01.12.2001.
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