State and Main (2000)

D: David Mamet
S: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgeon

Verbose, witty, in-jokey comedy from David Mamet. When a big movie comes to a small town, homely values meet Hollywood amorality with predictable results. Caught in the axis (at State and Main, so to speak) is screenwriter Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Big Lebowski), a playwright grappling with his artistic integrity who is faced with an even greater ethical quandary when he witnesses an accident involving star Alec Baldwin which could threaten the entire production if he tells the truth about what happened. His problems are compounded by the fact that he has been drawn to local bookstore owner Rebecca Pidgeon, whose values seem rooted and grounded by comparison with his own and with whom he seems to share a sense of empathy and understanding. Crossroads and conundrums abound as Mamet sets ethics and values in opposition amid gags about the movie business and its symbiotic (and symbolic) relationship with American society. It is mostly funny, sometimes hilarious, and though it does tread familiar ground, Mamet loads the film with his characteristic rapid-fire dialogue and an impressive cast of performers who carry it along.

There are a lot of characters in this movie played by big name actors. They have been expertly cast by Avy Kaufman. William H. Macy is terrific as the harried director, desperate to bring the production in under budget and without scandal after it has already been run out of Vermont under circumstances never made entirely clear. This actor seems to have been born for roles like this, playing a combination of harried everyman and confident achiever which works nicely in the balance. David Paymer is equally good as his producer, a classic executive bully who crosses swords with locals and professionals with equal ease. Alec Baldwin is a hoot as the hotshot actor with a taste for young girls and Tuna BLTs which is set to land him in trouble once again, especially when local waitress Julia Stiles sees his fetish as a ticket out of small town life. Sarah Jessica Parker has fun as a the female lead of the movie within the movie, ranging from vulnerable outrage to vampism as suits the moment. Charles Durning is amusing as local mayor George Bailey (in joke alert! in joke alert!), and Patti LuPone is priceless as his social climbing wife. Clark Gregg is a little overripe as a jilted lawyer who tries to move in on the production with writs and lawsuits and has personal reasons for doing so.

Mamet is able to dole out the one-liners among these stars relatively evenly, making it a superb bit of ensemble playing comparable with a Preston Sturges farce. There is a wide variety of action which pits the actors against one another in various combinations almost always to good effect. Married with his usual level of sharp observation and keen humour, the script has plenty of depth in spite of the familiarity of the premise. Mamet has some points to make about the business, and though he is not saying anything new, they hit home nonetheless.

The film is really kept afloat by the convincing performances of its primary actors though. Hoffman and Pidgeon are both believable and sympathetic as the characters most directly confronted with the thematic centre of the film. Their sense of connection is tangible and credible, and Mamet's elliptical dialogue allows an even greater sense of psychic symmetry to emerge from the performances. Pidgeon takes a deceptively wide-eyed and physically restricted approach to her character which calls to mind Frances McDormand's work in Fargo. Hoffman is nicely understated for his part, but manages a number of delicate shifts in mood which make the character work.

It is unfortunate that some of it is so obvious though. Despite its postmodern sniggers-up-the-sleeve, this is still old-fashioned Capraesque American social satire which has not really been brought up to date in any respect. The story adds no wrinkles to the formula other than some detail on contemporary vice. This is still a doggedly conventional tale of down-home values and finding the true centre of one's moral life which George Bailey would certainly appreciate. Just because Mamet is capable of being ironic about the fact that he's poking fun at picket fences and small-town doctors doesn't mean the film automatically rises above its own source material. Winks to the audience are all well and good, but does this constitute a radical re-visioning of the representation of small town Americana? Blue Velvet it is not.

State and Main is an entertaining and well acted movie which benefits from solid professional credits in all departments. It might well have passed without notice in a world where thoughtful adult entertainments were more common, but when its most recent competitor in subject and tone is Bowfinger, it seems to stride high above the pack. It is not necessarily an immediate candidate for a casual evening's entertainment, but it is funny, pacy, and features a cast which has to feature at least one actor you like. Mamet fans will enjoy it all the more, but then you knew that.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.