State and Main

"Go you Huskies!"

Would I be too predictable if I said that David Mamet is my favorite screenwriter? I find it impossible to actively dislike a movie written and/or directed by him. His distinctive dialogue adds dimensions to any story. He has tackled a maddening variety of projects and conquered just about all of them. His latest, State and Main, is, unlike his last few projects, an outright comedy. Though Mamet is known more for his mystery scripts (The Spanish Prisoner, House of Games) he’s been, to a certain extent, even more successful with comedy; Things Change, his best film, is also one of his most humorous. This is quintessential Mamet — funny, scathing, quirky and insightful — though this time the insight is (sometimes literally) into the Hollywood movie mill rather than characters.

The film is essentially about a filmmaking crew that invades the small town of Waterford, Vermont and have to deal with countless obstacles along the way. The director (William H. Macy) has to find an “old mill” to be used as a setting for the movie (we don’t know the title until the end; all we’re told is that “it’s about purity”) when they find out that the one they were planning on using burned down years ago. The lead actor (Alec Baldwin) turns out to have a fetish for teenage girls and the actress (Sarah Jessica Parker) all of a sudden doesn’t want to bare her breasts although “the whole country can draw them from memory.” Meanwhile, the screenwriter (Philip Seymour Hoffman) loses his typewriter and undergoes a major identity crisis when he’s asked to do rewrite after rewrite. He falls in love with the head of the town’s theater troupe (Rebecca Pidgeon) who happens to be engaged to the councilman (Clark Gregg) who wants to stop the filming in Waterford.

Chaos ensues and Mamet’s script captures each moment on the perfect note. His characters talk in his distinctive staccato dialogue and the casting is per usual; Macy, Pidgeon and Ricky Jay are in almost all of his movies. But State and Main finds its own tone by being funnier and less disciplined than any of his previous films. Gags fly almost at Abraham/Zucker speed and what seem like throwaways — the title of the movie when it’s finally revealed, for example — turn out to be comedic gems.

Yet oddly, this isn’t satire; it’s much too disconnected from reality for that term to apply. It doesn’t give the impression that it’s making fun of anything or anyone in particular and, despite its many corrupt, immoral characters, it doesn’t seem to bear an animosity toward Hollywood. The film takes jabs at random concepts — product placement, for example — but never finds a satirical focus. This isn’t a detriment but, I think, a stylistic choice on the part of the director. He wanted to make a wacky, out-there sort of comedy, and he got one.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is typically amazing in what is easily the most fleshed-out role in the movie and Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet’s wife) is rapidly gaining respectability as Hoffman’s love interest. David Paymer shows up about halfway through as the insulting, exceedingly business-minded producer and adds even more insanity to the concoction. Alec Baldwin is almost shockingly un-self-conscious as the movie star who likes fourteen year-old girls.

One of the sharpest, wittiest, most enjoyable films of the year, State and Main should be sought out at the art house. It’s nothing you’d expect a Mamet film to be, which is, in this case, neither a positive or a negative.

-- Eugene Novikov

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