State and Main

There is a scene halfway through David Mamet’s lighthearted “State and Main” where a screenwriter tries to explain to the woman he likes why a nude starlet is standing in his hotel room. As strange as his explanation sounds, the woman seems to understand.


He questions her sincerity, saying that even he knows it sounds absurd. She counters “So is our electoral process, but we still vote.”

Always relevant, Mamet skillfully captures the current state of the union in a funny, old-fashioned comedy that instantly recalls such Hollywood classics as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Sullivan’s Travels.” The end result is a film that affectionately skewers the very hand that feeds it. Filled with engaging characters and witty dialogue, “State and Main” emerges as one of the best films of the year.

It’s not the first Mamet film to wind up on one of my year-end lists. Hardly a year goes by without a Mamet inclusion, from last year’s “The Winslow Boy,” to “The Spanish Prisoner,” “House of Games” and “Homicide.” Mamet is a brilliant wordsmith, one of the few playwrights who understands the dynamics of film. When he gets behind the camera, the results are always interesting.

In “State and Main,” Mamet gets to have his cake and eat it too. His depiction of small town America is rife with affectionate nods. He’s not satirizing these people, he’s feeding off of their natural humor. Waterford, Vermont is one of those quaint, Norman Rockwell towns where everyone you pass knows your name and roots for the Huskies. It’s a utopian, gold fish bowl world, with nary a ripple in the water.

All that changes when Mamet drops a school of sharks into the bowl. The sharks arrive in the form of a Hollywood production company, hoping to exploit the locals and their town for all it’s worth. What the sharks don’t realize is that they’re swimming in the gold fish’s bowl, and that the gold fish are smaller yet more agile. The real fun comes in watching both sides struggle for dominance.

Mamet regular William H. Macy stars as Walt Price, the film’s director. Macy perfectly captures the spirit of the passive aggressive character, one moment kissing up to the talent, the next lambasting a crew members for wearing a T-shirt he doesn’t like. It’s a hire-wire act that Macy carries off without exception. There’s real conviction in his eyes, even when we know he’s blowing smoke.

Into the fold comes leading man Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin, perfectly cast), whose dalliances with 14-year girls (hey, everyone needs a hobby) causes the production lots of grief; and leading lady Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), who has found religion and no longer wants to do a contractual nude scene. Forget the fact that the production company has been run out of their previous location, or that a local politician is trying to railroad them.

If anything can go wrong, it does. Promising playwright turned screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) shows up on location, only to learn that his trusty typewrite is missing, and that the leading man has totally rewritten the script. White’s problems escalate when the production company learns that the local mill has burned down, especially since his script is called “The Old Mill.”

Except for the politician, all of the locals welcome the production company. Local bookseller and dramatist Ann (Rebecca Pidgeon) is elated to meet White, whose play she knows by heart. Her attraction to White becomes complicated by her relationship with the politician. Young beauty Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles) exploits Barrenger’s weakness, while the Mayor (Charles Durning) and his socialite wife (Patti Lupone) jump through hoops in order to throw a dinner party with the celebrities.

I love Mamet’s ability to blend Hollywood wickedness with small town sweetness. He creates heroes and villains on both sides, and every one of the characters click. Hoffman’s sweet and good natured writer seems totally out of place in Hollywood, while Clark Gregg’s politician Doug MacKenzie seems right at home. It’s easy to see why Ann would prefer White over MacKenzie. Hoffman has an innate ability to become the characters he plays, and he is simply wonderful as White.

Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife, is also sweet and funny as Ann. Whenever she’s on the screen, you know there’s hope. Durning and Lupone have fun with the mayor and his wife, totally turning their lives into a sideshow.

Baldwin and Parker have the toughest jobs, actors playing actors, yet each bring the right amount of pathos and vulnerability to the role. David Paymer is hilarious as the producer who shows up to fix things.

Possibly Mamet’s most accessible film to date, “State and Main” allows the writer-director to reach a broader audience without dumbing down the material. In less skillful hands, this could have easily become a farce. Instead, “State and Main” emerges as true Mamet. His characters say the most interesting things, the kind of dialogue that can only come from the pen of someone who has lived through it.

Topical yet affectionate, “State and Main” captures the spirit of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra with a modern sensibility. I thoroughly enjoyed “State and Main,” although the film’s inside humor might escape some audience members. Those in the know will laugh their socks off.

MAIN COURSEDirector Mamet dishes up a funny slice of Americana

STATE AND MAIN

William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, Julia Stiles, David Paymer, Charles Durning. Directed by David Mamet. Rated R. 105 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $7



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