State and Main, directed by David Mamet
David Mamet has joined us for the holiday season with his new film, STATE AND MAIN. Mamet, whose greatest success has been in the theater, clearly sees himself as a filmmaker as well. STATE AND MAIN has a familiar premise: Hollywood filmmakers are a jaded lot who will do anything to anyone in the pursuit of their fantasies. In this case, a feature film crew, led by William Macy as the director, sweeps into a small New England town to make a costume drama about a fireman hoping for a second chance in life. The film within a film gets off to a bad start when the crew discovers that the town’s old mill, which the screenwriter has his entire script pivot around, mysteriously burned to the ground some 40 years earlier. Macy asks the writer, played with bumbling innocence by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, to find a new title: THE OLD MILL won’t work.
Everyone has his or her problems: Hoffman has to redesign his script. The Italian cinematographer has to design an impossible camera movement. Sarah Jessica Parker, the female lead, decides that she can’t expose her breasts, or at least she can’t expose her breasts without an additional $800,000 in compensation. The producer has to fend off the town yuppie, lawyer and political aspirant to high office who thinks he can gouge the production for all kinds of money. The mayor has to placate his wife who dreams of hosting the perfect dinner for the town’s new elite. Alec Baldwin, the film’s male lead, has to skirt around what he takes to be tiresome issues of law in his lively pursuit of underage girls, and the town’s amateur drama coach, played with an utterly charming ungainliness by the remarkable Rebecca Pidgeon, must compete with the new big budget show in town as she strikes up a budding romance with screenwriter Hoffman.
At the center of all these tempests is director Macy in one of his biggest and most impressive roles to date. Macy is half a step ahead of everyone almost all the time, offering a heady mix of promises, threats, flattery, bribes, sweet talk and fast action. If he possesses an ounce of creativity that could ever wind up on a movie screen, we will never know, but as a cajoler and manipulator he ranks with the best of the best. He, as much as any one of the motley array of Hollywood characters, seems to epitomize Mamet’s low regard for the very form in which he himself is working. The director winds up in charge of so complex and so amoral an enterprise that there is no time or energy left over for anything remotely creative, and in the case of Mamet, there may be too little time left after all the skewering and satire to shape the film into anything more substantial than the type of films it wants us to despise.
STATE AND MAIN has all the signs of an intended comedy in the satiric mode. And funny it is, at a local level. There are delicious bits of humor, priceless come backs and put downs, painfully funny scenes of embarrassment and manipulation. Right through to the very end of the final credits, Mamet finds ways to amuse us. He does so, however, at the price of any ambition higher than another slam at Hollywood, not exactly the hardest target in the world to hit square in the face. The anatomy of greed, deception and self-deception deserves vigorous treatment, satiric or otherwise. STATE AND MAIN gives us the treatment but it is not entirely vigorous. Looking at movies that look at the world, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Bill Nichols.
Copyright 2000. Bill Nichols