State & Main
directed by David Mamet
(New Line, 2000)

Walt Price is an out-of-money movie director, Bob Barrenger is a screen idol with a yen for his underage fans, Claire Wellesley is a well-endowed actress who's just found the Lord and Joseph Turner White is a nerdy playwright who knows even less about love than he does about his own plays.

Together they descend on Waterford, Vt., where they hope to complete a week's location shooting for a film called The Old Mill.

Instead, they come face to face with Mayor George Bailey, who'll do anything to please his wife and nothing to please the town council; Mrs. Bailey, who wants to impress both the town and the crew with dinner at her home; Ann Black, a bookstore owner who knows White's plays better than he does himself; and Carla Taylor, a star-struck teen who'd rather deliver tuna BLTs to Barrenger than homework to her teachers.

If that sounds complicated, it is, and with good reason. It's a brief overview of David Mamet's latest directorial effort, State & Main. Mamet, a playwright, is best known for intense, convoluted dramas like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner.

State & Main has all the convolutions of his earlier work, but the intensity is replaced by an ongoing sense of droll quirkiness that refuses to be derailed, even when events sour and characters do their darndest to turn vicious. The result is a carefully choreographed mishmash of snappy patter and running gags, all delivered in timely fashion by a perfectly cast cast.

William H. Macy is delightfully hateful as Price, the director who'll do anything, say anything, to get his film made. Lying? No, as he notes on more than one occasion, "It's a gift for fiction."

Alec Baldwin is perfectly obtuse as Barrenger and Sara Jessica Parker, as Wellesley, matches Macy manipulation for manipulation. But the award for best performance by a man who doesn't even seem to know he's performing goes to Philip Seymour Hoffman as White, a naive playwright charged with rewriting The Old Mill to fit a town whose mill burned down decades ago.

Of the townsfolk, Rebecca Pidgeon stands out as Black, the only one who seems to have an inkling that anything unusual is going on, while Julia Stiles as Carla makes it perfectly clear from the get-go that Barrenger is not going to have much luck staying within the law. Finally, Charles During is his old jovial, snarly self as the mayor caught in the middle, and Patti LuPone as his wife demonstrates once and for all that Hollywood doesn't have a monopoly on phonies.

State & Main may not be Mamet's best film, but it's clear he had a lot of fun making it. The timing is impeccable and the dialogue crisp and cutting -- screwball comedy with a razor-sharp edge. Even Mamet's visual sense, which was often his weak point, seems stronger: witness the flying car behind White's head at -- where else? -- the corner of State and Main.

"Everybody makes their own fun," Black tells White in one scene. "If you don't make it yourself, it isn't fun. It's entertainment." I guess that makes State & Main entertainment. Entertainment that's a whole lot of fun.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 2 March 2002

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