STATE AND MAIN
Review by Scott Renshaw
In Waterford, Vermont, the town doctor strolls down Main Street,
following up with his patients as they pass by. The residents exchange
expressions of support for the high school football team, and the clothing
store leaves racks untended on the sidewalk. The mayor is even named
George Bailey. George for-the-love-of-IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Bailey. Yes,
indeed, Waterford is the quintessence of wholesome small-town America, God
bless us every one.
Oh, and there was a string of suspicious fires back in the 1960s,
probably set by a deranged teenager.
Somewhere between Frank Capra and David Lynch (by way of Woody Allen)
lies the world of David Mamet's STATE AND MAIN, a movie industry satire
that's not really a movie industry satire in its unique, sweetly cynical
way. The concept finds a Hollywood film crew searching for the ideal
backwater New England town for a location shoot. Director Walt Price
(William H. Macy) believes he has found his spot in Waterford, until
things start getting shaky. A key location is inconveniently absent,
leading man Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) is once again indulging his taste
for underage girls and leading lady Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica
Parker) is balking at doing her nude scene. Meanwhile, the film's rookie
screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is struggling
with his artistic conscience and his re-writes as he falls for local
bookseller Annie White (Rebecca Pidgeon).
In a more conventional film, STATE AND MAIN would have turned into a
broad fish-out-of-water farce about clashes between the worldly and the
homespun. Mamet chooses to keep those two worlds largely distinct from a
narrative standpoint, juxtaposing the film's behind-the-scenes chaos with
the reactions of the townspeople to the crew's presence. Most of the more
straightforward humor comes from the pre-production, with good
self-deprecating work by Baldwin and Parker and hilarious work by David
Paymer as the film's cutthroat producer. Then there is Macy, whose
director takes on a different personality for every person he deals with
depending on how much power he wields over them. As both writer and
director, Mamet keeps masterful control over when information is revealed,
adding layers of humor at unexpected moments. In their clockwork
construction and delightful aura of self-importance, those movie scenes
are the stuff of great comedy.
But STATE AND MAIN actually works best as something more than a
simple razzing of movie folk. The real object of Mamet's ridicule is the
whole idea of "purity" over which Black obsessess in his script. Waterford
is no idealized hamlet away from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood. It's
a town with dark secrets, ready to sell its soul for a chance to be part
of that hustle and bustle. The townies at the diner trade their local
paper for Variety, the mayor's wife (Patti LuPone) tears up her historic
home to host a dinner for the film crew, and the community theater actors
drop their local production for a chance to be an extra in the movie.
Mamet takes the myth of pop culture as corruptor of ordinary, decent
Americans and shows ordinary, decent Americans in our tabloid- and
WWF-obsessed "average American" world plenty ready to be corrupted if
given an excuse, thank you very much.
That may sound like a terribly dark perspective, but STATE AND MAIN
is actually a bit more optimistic. The budding romance between Black and
White is not just significant in the metaphorical obviousness of their
names, but in showing how tough it is to maintain a moral center in any
environment. It's also, unfortunately, a seriously weak link. It's nice to
see an actor like Hoffman get a shot at a romantic lead, but there's
something missing from his character to make him a solid center. And while
Pidgeon is getting better on screen all the time, she s
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