Mamet Lightens Up
State and Main marks out some new territory for David Mamet, well-established in theater and cinema circles as a caustic chronicler of human fallibility. Whether writing and directing cult hits such as House of Games (1987) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997), adapting his own stage work for other movie directors with Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and American Buffalo (1996) or scripting mainstream period pictures such as The Untouchables (1987), Hoffa (1992), and Lansky (for TV, 1999), Mamet's knack for naturalistic and witty dialogue is a constant thread throughout his film work, rarely failing to enliven what collectively amounts to a survey of schemers as they participate in the compromises and corruptions of life. Even in its darkest moments, the inventiveness of Mamet's plot construction and dialogue is a cut above the usual Hollywood feel-good slop. Still, Mamet's cynicism can become grating; an overall lighter touch than normal makes State and Main comparatively refreshing.
Mamet has dabbled in comedy before - the ripped-from-the-headlines political satire of Wag the Dog (1997) being his most successful foray - and the setting for State and Main allows him to explore his own profession's relationship with the "just plain folk" that sustain the movie industry's incredible success. The film fades in on a tiny, picturesque Vermont town named Waterford, where agitated film director Walt Price (William H. Macy) and his assistants are desperately seeking a new host for their production of The Old Mill, a vaguely Edith Wharton-esque tale of vanquished purity. The previous site in New Hampshire has been hastily vacated due to the sexual misdeeds of leading man Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), who habitually harbors throbbing Lolita fixations on any ingénue within reach.
The bulk of State and Main consists of interlocking stories between The Old Mill's cast, crew, and the Waterford townspeople, who quickly become so enamored with the production that they abandon their local drama rehearsal in hopes of securing parts as extras. Waterford's drama director and bookstore owner Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife and a regular in his films over the last decade) is the lone holdout against the Hollywood groundswell, even as her lawyer fiancé (Clark Gregg) attempts to secure a cut of the film's future box-office gross for Waterford's municipal coffers. That is only one of Price's problems; in addition, his female lead (Sarah Jessica Parker) reneges on her agreement to perform a topless scene due to newfound morality, then after a heartfelt pep talk from Price demands an extra $800,000 to bare her well-known bosoms. Meanwhile, Barrenger lasciviously sets his sight on local teenage waitress Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles), who is well-aware of the star's tabloid reputation and has her own lust for kicks to match.
Residing at the low end of the totem pole is, of course, first-time screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a slumming playwright devoted to manual typewriters and quaint reading glasses. With his precious script in need of a drastic rewrite, White turns to Ann Black for inspiration, and Mamet uses their growing, seemingly genuine attraction toward one another as a contrast to the multilayered double-crossing that overtakes the rest of the town. When Barrenger's teenage lust again threatens the film's future, Price calls in producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer) to help him conceal evidence and soothe egos left and right.
State and Main's ironies pile up after a while, and are fairly obvious, even if they are presented almost whimsically: the filmmakers attempting to make a serious picture about core values have none, the supposed purity of small-town life is just as venal as the La-La land lifestyle, and so on. As with most of Mamet's output, though, the verbal back-and-forth between characters as they try to advance their own agendas is the most appealing aspect of this film - the actors have a lot of fun with this sweet-and-sour story. Macy (a Mamet favorite over the years), Parker (under-utilized in recent years, despite her "Sex and the City" fame) and Paymer (his super-slick producer gets a lot of the film's best lines) all have their moments, while the ubiquitous Hoffman infuses his largest role to date with a mixture of skepticism and naiveté that somehow manages to endure through the film's conclusion. Finally, Alec Baldwin's hilarious horndog of a leading man confirms several things: a) his real-life departure from above-the-title status in Hollywood has less to do with his outspoken liberal politics than his inadequacy for the position, b) he's best when tapping into the comic persona used so often in "Saturday Night Live" guest appearances, and c) based on this performance, his role in The Edge (1997) - a flawed but ambitious picture written by Mamet - and his searing cameo in Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet knows how to use this Baldwin best.
State and Main opens this Friday at the Kentuky Theater (finally).
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