State and Main rating:
Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on December 17, 2001 in Las Vegas CityLife.
David Mamet tones it down a second time in the relaxed State and Main
When one has proven himself, he has earned his right to go his own way -- even if its less adventuresome than his past route. Director/screenwriter David Mamet has made such a choice. State and Main is a gentle satire as meandering as the Old Mill Stream. Mamet has a reputation for harsh language and perverse character conflict, but he also has a soft spot. State and Main is from his rustic side. Its not angry or aggressive; its an easy, relaxed journey.
State and Main is the story of a cast and crew who wind up in a small town in Vermont doing preproduction for a film.
Various crises arise: the title structure -- the Old Mill -- has long ago burned down; the main actress (Sarah Jessica Parker) refuses to do a nude scene for which she is contracted; a local politician (Clark Gregg) seeks to make a reputation by destroying the production; the main actor (Alec Baldwin) gets in trouble with an underage girl (Julia Stiles); and the writer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is stymied by the changes in his script.
This could be a plot for a vigorous attack on Hollywood and Americas ethics. It isnt; its more of a playful nudge.
This is no Glengarry Glen Ross. This is not a film that will change ones view about anything or upset anybody. Its most like another Mamet diversion, Things Change. One wonders why he has chosen lightness when its not his best touch. Has the fire in his belly gone the way of the Old Mill? Has he spoken his last "fuck you"? Has vitriol turned to lilac?
The best Mamet movies -- House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross (which Mamet wrote but didnt direct) and The Winslow Boy -- have several memorable performances. State and Main only has one. Philip Seymour Hoffman is terrific -- when isnt he? -- as the decent playwright turned screenwriter. (Mamet himself is a playwright turned screenwriter.)
Hoffman is surrounded by an able ensemble cast. William H. Macy, who plays the director, is probably on screen as much as any of the actors, which is problematic. Macy is a fine character actor, but he has trouble carrying a whole film, as he showed in Mamets Oleanna. Parker and Baldwin are serviceable as the stars of the film within the film.
Mamet has often used his wives to star in his movies. Some of us have never forgiven him for divorcing the talented Lindsay Crouse, who was compelling in House of Games, but also had a vital film career beyond her relatonship with Mamet. His present wife Rebecca Pidgeon, who has starred in Mamets last three movies, plays the love interest opposite Hoffman. She is at the service of her husbands craft and obviously delivers his lines in the mannered way he desires. But shes no Lindsay Crouse.
The films soft tone is helped by the music of Theodore Shapiro, which renders a gentle, plaintive, playful rhythm. In his script Mamet, who has always cared about language and the lack of communication, takes some of his usual verbal shots -- "It's not a lie...It's a gift for fiction."
State and Main may make one yearn for the incisive cleverness of Robert Altmans The Player. But to his credit -- although hes not after a knockout -- Mamet does connect with a series of pleasant jabs. And, at this point in his career, that may be all he wants.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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