State and Main

Rebecca Pidgeon and Philip Seymour Hoffman in State and Main

 

 

An intelligent and acidic if somewhat stagey comedy about a film production descending on a small New England town and the effect that each has on the other. It’s written and directed by David Mamet, not known for out and out comedy, but clearly feeling flighty at the moment, flighty enough to turn out the sort of farce you might expect from the French, or from Michael Frayn. And Mamet has the cast to perform it – Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julia Stiles and a surprisingly good Alec Baldwin, all of them upping their game in homage to a master of the blunt misanthropic object who has spent enough time writing and directing films to know what the standard types are, and how to polish them. So we get the innocent writer (Hoffman) who doesn’t want a word of his script changed; the tyro two-faced director (Macy) doglike in devotion or attack, depending on who he’s talking to; the female star (Sarah Jessica Parker) who suddenly gets coy about whipping her top off; the male star (Baldwin) with a penchant for jailbait; the jailbait (Stiles) with a penchant for male stars; the cameraman in a beret; the schlemiel of a producer. And so on. Meanwhile, there’s the occupants of the hayseed town they descend on, including Charles Durning and Patti LuPone. They’re hayseeds, but funny hayseeds, every bit as venal as the film folk, but they’ve just had less time to perfect their shtick. Under the farce plotting of wild coincidence and Mamet’s satirical stabs, the film seems to be saying something about how far “entertainment” (when someone else does it and you watch) is from “fun” (when you do it yourself) and how the movies are somehow killing us all. Movie critics, most of them armchair-loving lazy asses, not surprisingly didn’t like State and Main very much. And of course they’re right to be cagey, Mamet being an entertainment mogul, and all.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

 

State and Main – at Amazon

 

 

4 thoughts on “State and Main”

  1. Spoilers herein.

    Mamet is the best writer in the business, and here is another of his films about films. There are dozens this year already by others (and about writing too) and this is an incredibly tight and multilayered edition, but the layers are different than usual.

    Once again, we get relatively deep ruminations on the nature of art. Here, the mirror of film and film-within is reflected in Hollywood and a `real’ town. Lots of smaller reflections too — for instance in the external film, breasts are shown to the lead but not the audience, while this same issue is manipulated in the internal film. Lots of plot turns, including some unconsummated starts: who burned stuff down? why did it inspire the Huskies? what happened to 1975? Some truly great acting on the part of Hoffman and Macy. And the whole thing is funny as hell.

    But what’s truly fascinating is how Mamet layered the meanings and how he placed his wife in the center. His past few films — the ones he directed plus `Vanya’ — were incredibly multilayered. He creates parallel worlds which the actors jump among, sometimes chasing, or annotating, or fighting. Very rich, very jazz. But in the last two films Rebecca has been lost as an actress. She’s really quite accomplished, but as a straight ahead sort of actor. Hoffman can play several roles at once — Pidgeon only one.

    One can see that Mamet loves his levels — it’s the core of his achievement. But he loves his wife more. So here he has flattened his levels of abstraction so that they are not indirectly referenced but intrinsic in the story. That way, his wife can work with her role without being swamped. He even builds the entire creation of both films around her (she writes them both). And he adds a half-film of sorts where she creates her own, by mobilizing townspeople to fool Hoffman’s character.

    More. With Hoffman as his surrogate he even makes the story about this bending of the story for her, about sacrificing artifice for love. What a valentine! How enobling a love! I’ll bet his next writing/directing effort (`The Heist,’ now in production) is similarly built on her.

    My only complaint continues to be his use of the camera, which is strictly mundane. His films are plays, all about the writing and acting, not at all about the filming in the filming. What will happen when Mamet’s writing is seen through Ridley Scott’s eye? We’ll soon see.

  2. If you know Mamet’s film history, you’ll realize often, he writes about lowlifes and depressing (though good) subject matter such as the Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross and The Winslow Boy. But now, Mamet turns to light comedy and succeeds, even if as times it’s a little too light.

    The film is mainly supported (besides a clever script) by it’s cast including William H. Macy delivering some good laughs as a director who comes off like he did in Fargo, only more like you would see a director. Phillip Seymour Hoffman makes good as a writer, Alec Baldwin brings some sly humor as a big movie star who can’t get away from 14 year old girls (though Julia Stiles doesn’t look 14), Sarah Jessica Parker is actually sexy here, and David Paymer is stunningly funny as a go for broke producer. At points, one could compare this movie to the brilliant Bowfinger from last year and they might be right, but Mamet also adds in stuff about small towns as well. Enjoyable to say the least. B+

  3. I haven’t been thoroughly following David Mamet’s career, but just watching this film, "American Buffalo" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" I already get a feel of his unique style of writing. It’s very witty, very original and he has certain trademarks, like quick exchanges of dialogue between actors and repeating of the same sentence of dialogue in a group of lines. Well, his uniqueness is quite evident in watching this movie and it works quite well.

    First I’ll mention the vast array of talented actors. I don’t think the casting could’ve been any better. Character actor William H. Macy is brilliant as the almost unscrupulous director, who will do ANYTHING–and I’m not exaggerating the least bit–to get his picture done. Fellow character actor/fellow PT Anderson regular Philip Seymour-Hoffman turns in another brilliant, yet subtle performance as the shy but appealing and wildly creative screenwriter who is the fuel of this cinematic project. As I said, he’s made a significant–and extremely impressive–transition from playing the airhead jerk in "Scent of a Woman" and "Twister" to playing deep character roles like this. He ranks among the top in my list of Best Underrated Actors (along with Macy) and I hope one of these days he’ll become a household name. David Peymer, I think, delivers the best performance of his career as the fast-talking, sniveling producer. I’ve always known he was a good actor, but he truly flaunts his knack for acting and taking risks in this role. It figures that playwright Mamet would assemble a group of fine character actors, instead of simply casting people who "look good on camera." That’s one of the advantages of having a playwright as a director.

    The script is wildly original and kept me laughing. There are many interesting, memorable quotes. And this is just a fine adult comedy (Thank God!!). With the explosion of teen gross-out comedies, I’m sure audiences will cherish a comedy like this. It works in all aspects. Not only is it well-performed, but it’s well-written (lots of comedies only contain one of those factors). And it’s all done in good taste. So those of you expecting cheap sex jokes and low-brow gags involving bodily functions–sorry to disappoint you! There are no cliches. This movie is an explosion of Mamet’s gift for creativity. Take for example, the relationship between Hoffman and the beautiful Rebecca Pidgeon. They don’t have a sex scene. Most of their screen time is spent talking and getting to know each other, sharing their thoughts on writing, researching the town’s history, finding out how much they have in common. Do we still see that in the movies? Character development in romance? In the scene where Hoffman is in the hotel room with Sarah Jessica Parker lying on the bed naked, and Pidgeon knocks on his door to greet him with a bouquet of flowers, there’s no predictability. You would assume she would take one look at Parker’s naked body and punch him in face. I’m not going to give away what happens, but that moment stuck in my mind, because it is the first film I’ve seen to go a different route with the whole "girlfriend catches you in bed with another girl" premise.

    "State and Main" is pleasant, light-hearted, funny, original comedy and it’s one I’d definitely recommend. If you want to see great performances and laugh at good, tasteful humor–you can’t go wrong!

    My score: 7 (out of 10)

  4. The reviews of this film seem to be mixed and I am confused on how that can be? This is one of my favorite movies ever and may be the best (not slapstick, Chris Farley-esque comedy, but smart) comedy. You must pay attention to this movie to get the jokes, because most of them are running (as in recurring) jokes that pick up on items that may have been just mentioned once ("Go you Huskies!") and again and again and again and then are explained later as a tag-on in the dialogue. This basic comedy technique works on an early Mel Brooks type level and makes for a movie that should be watched many times in order to pick up everything, but is still (maybe even more) enjoyable after each viewing.

    The writing is unquestionably the best comedy screenplay since those early Brooks films. It’s just funny, but you have to pay attention. If you aren’t listening to every line of dialogue, you will miss jokes, it is that simple. Each line is crucial to the script either as a story/plot building device or as a joke building device or both. There is not one wasted word in the script.

    The cast is classic. Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife, plays the matter-of-fact-talking girl perfectly. She is the heart of the film and deserves praise for being able to perform that well. The other person that deserves high praise is William H. Macy. His performance is on par with his Fargo performance. He emits this sense of control as everything falls apart around him and delivers some excellent lines.

    Baldwin gives a better than average performance, as does Durning and Hoffman and the rest of the cast is quite good.

    The direction is great. The movie seems to last 15 minutes because it is that interesting and fast paced. The perceived fast pace is created by the actors saying their lines so quickly and crisply. This can only occur with a director that knows the script but since the script was written by the director, the point becomes moot. Everything else also flows so well and the credit for that has to be given to Mamet’s directing and writing ability.

    I really like this film. I like the way "The Old Mill" mirrors the actions of the actual film and how deep the film goes. This is like one of those classic novels that can be dissected in every way for symbolism and thought, which is quite rare in today’s cinema. The film may be too smart for it’s own good and may have overshot the general movie audience, but makes for a gem of a movie to watch. Mamet pulls no punches making fun of Hollywood by comparing it to small town America or more importantly Hollywood "values" to small town American values. Watch this movie if you want to think and be entertained, and if that doesn’t sound appealing, please go find another movie to watch.

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