Prolific writer David Mamet has written some 30 screenplays during the past 20 years, many of them serious pieces about life's losers and con men, though Wag the Dog certainly contained a great deal of sarcastic humor. The lighthearted State and Main supplies more laughs and nudges the film industry in the ribs more pointedly than any film since The Player. Despite the fun, the film will likely only show in arthouses because it credits the audience with intelligence by throwing a lot of dialogue at the audience and doesn't rely on a patented Hollywood ending.
Thus, many filmgoers who live in towns that only provide mainstream fare will be deprived of one of the year's better films — a shame in a rather lackluster year.
State and Main begins with a film company relocating to the bucolic hamlet of Waterford, Vermont supposedly because the small town in New Hampshire doesn't have a mill for its 19th century period project, The Old Mill. The real reason for the sudden location shift turns out to be a legal one, to protect sleazy Hollywood star Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) from being prosecuted for his “hobby” of leaching on to 14 year old girls.
As described on a pillow, the film crew plans to “shoot first, ask questions later.” So what happens to an innocent hamlet when it first encounters Hollywood fame, money, and power? Will the town retain its purity, which happens to be one of the running themes of the film within the film, or will this romantic notion of independent, righteous America bend to the ways Hollywood? A clue to this may be found in a small vignette in the local diner, where two old codgers are discussing the financial bottom line of recent films from Variety.
Two major threads emerge. One involves Bob Barrenger allowing himself to be seduced by young teen jailbait Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles), and the cover-up that the film producers undertake. This is made all the more difficult when a drunken Barrenger crashes into the town's one traffic light, flipping the car over and injuring both himself and his young consort.
The other thread is more interesting, mainly because it allows Philip Seymour Hoffman to play more of a leading role as the tentative, sensitive, and honest screenwriter who gets the girl this time. Hoffman plays the neurotic playwright Joe White, who can only write on his old manual typewriter, which got lost somewhere in New Hampshire. But he is quickly charmed by the town's local independent book seller, Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon), a good hearted woman who actually knows and appreciates White's previous play. Being the most literate Waterford resident and director of the local theater group, Black is smitten when White enthusiastically seeks her advice on the movie script.
In a sense, the film reminds of Nashville with its political themes and multiple threads, except in a less ambitious and much more controlled environment. State and Main works well as an ensemble piece largely because of an excellent script, and some fine selections for the cast.
Credit Mamet five stars for landing William Macy as director Walt Price. Even bad movies like Air Force One and Psycho (1998) have their good moments when Macy appears on the screen. All the better when he's allowed to use his chameleon qualities in this role. What an acting tour de force Macy delivers in a role that could easily have turned into a one-dimensional character. Instead we see shades of the sleazy Fargo car salesman return to alternate between tyrannically making multiple decisions and expecting underlings to obey instantly, to the understanding man who must soothe his temperamental actresses so that they will bare their breasts on camera. All the while we realize that Macy is always aware of all the politics around him and always in control even when forced to use diplomacy and creatively stretch the truth. In Macy’s words he doesn’t lie – “It's not a lie. It's a gift for fiction.”
One slipup occurs with an unintentional slight to the Mayor and his wife when a dinner date is broken. The wife (Sherry Bailey) demonstrates that she is as ruthless as any Hollywood movie mogul in her brief part. Mayor George Bailey is played by the fine stage and movie actor Charles Durning, who also consistently turns in great performances even when in weak material.
King of supporting actors, Hofmann shows that he can carry a film though his part may still be too small to be considered a leading actor in State and Main. His sympathetic character is torn – at first attempting to maintain his original storyline, but soon realizing that he has to change his screenplay into a ludicrous scenario to fit the film's location and budget. He carries off the balance well. The self indulgent Baldwin and Stiles appropriately represent their characters as well.
Other characters who fit well into the crazy California film culture exiled to the far northeast include a European cinematographer who fears making a shot through a stained glass window and a screen starlet (Sarah Jessica Parker) who refuses to do a nude scene because she has recently turned to Christ. This all changes when the producer comes up with an additional $800,000 of course.
Not everyone will get into this film since it is dialogue heavy and could easily be adapted for stage theater. For those who love theater, this is quite a treat in a rather disappointing film year. Mamet's film retains a lightheartedness that pokes fun at the film industry and gives some memorable performances. It's worth checking out.