State and Main (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

State and Main offers prolific playwright/filmmaker David Mamet his latest chance to re-invent himself. Mamet, who is perhaps best known for his twisty thrillers (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner) and tense psychological dramas (Glengarry Glenn Ross, American Buffalo), surprised movie-goers last year with his stately and effective cinematic adaptation of The Winslow Boy. A clear departure for Mamet, The Winslow Boy allowed him to silence those critics who had pigeonholed him. Now, with State and Main, he travels into territory in which he has dabbled as a writer, but never as a director. And, while the film returns Mamet to the familiar terrain of the R-rated picture, this genial comedy does not feature any of the profanity-loaded diatribes that have characterized many of his previous efforts.

What State and Main has, and what makes it distinctly Mamet, is brilliant dialogue. The director's stylistic imprint - that of characters speaking in clipped sentences that have a staccato rhythm - has been toned down here. Like in The Winslow Boy, it's in evidence, but not nearly as forcefully as in some of Mamet's earlier work. The way the characters talk is almost naturalistic, although the kinds of things they say are far too clever and intelligent to represent the words and phraseology of the average person. Mamet's writing is an illustration of how the best dialogue in movies often doesn't mirror the way people really talk. (This, by the way, is a lesson that Quentin Tarantino learned early in his Hollywood career.)

State and Main chronicles the trials and tribulations of a production crew trying to make a movie on-location in the small town of Waterford, Vermont. Although this is a farce, one has to wonder how many of the incidents related in the film represent episodes from Mamet's experience (much as there were questions about how true-to-life Tom DiCillo's Living In Oblivion was). The characters are a mix of Hollywood big shots and small town types. Arriving in Waterford are Walt Price (William H. Macy), the director; Marty Rossen (David Paymer), the producer; Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), the male lead with a penchant for underage girls; Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), the female lead; and Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the sensitive writer. Greeting the movie-makers are the likes of Waterford's mayor, George Bailey (Charles Durning - I wonder where Mamet came up with that name?); the mayor's domineering wife, Sherry (Patti LuPone); the local bookseller, Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon); and the young and flirtatious Carla (Julia Styles).

Problems crop up almost immediately. The town's historical old mill, where much of the film's action was to have taken place, burned down more than 30 years ago. Barrenger's notorious appetites get him in trouble the minute he meets Carla. Claire wants an additional $800,000 to appear topless (despite the fact that the American public can "draw her [breasts] from memory"). Rossen is pushing the product placement of, even though the movie is a period piece set in 1895. And White falls for local girl Ann, enraging her lawyer/fiancé.

State and Main is not consistently funny, but it contains a number of winning scenes and barbed one-liners. Mamet's talent for writing shines through with comments like: "It's not a lie, it's a gift for fiction", "An associate producer credit is what you give your secretary instead of a raise", and "The better part of valor is to step away, or you, your kids, and your grandkids will die in poverty." There's a brief-but-timely exchange on how absurd the American electoral process is (ironically, the film was made long before the current Presidential situation). And, while Mamet's view of Hollywood types is sharp and cynical, it isn't nearly as nasty as what was portrayed in Robert Altman's The Player.

The strength of the cast also helps. The standout is, not surprisingly, William H. Macy, who is familiar with Mamet's work both on stage and on screen. Macy knows precisely how to deliver Mamet's dialogue, and he brings enough humanity to his part to elevate Price above the level of a caricature. David Paymer, cast against type as a tough guy, relishes the chance to play someone other than a milquetoast. Neither Alec Baldwin nor Sarah Jessica Parker has trouble lampooning the typical Hollywood star image. Meanwhile, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rebecca Pidgeon (who has been a regular in Mamet films since marrying the director) bring a little lighthearted romance to the package.

Mamet has a reputation for creating daring and powerful motion pictures. State and Main is neither daring nor powerful, but its lightness and lack of complexity should not necessarily be viewed as a negative. It's highly watchable, and, at times, humorously compelling. The film probably doesn't deserve the large crowds and long lines it generated at film festivals, but, in the more comfortable venue of a local theater, it offers two hours' diverting entertainment.

State and Main (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2000-12-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1