State and Main

Here’s a small, sweet little film that seems to spring from another era. When’s the last time you’ve seen a comedy that went on without rushing for gags, that just kept with its subdued satirical tone without going for cheap laughs? Even on David Mamet standards, this is an unusual film to come out of Hollywood. It sort of has the same feel as his political satire “Wag The Dog” except that this time he focuses on the movie business and it all seems… quieter. I don’t know how good a thing this is. In a way, it’s refreshing to watch a film like this, without any of the usual bells and whistles, only a great cast delivering Mamet’s signature dialogue. Then again, I’m not sure I even laughed once throughout, and this is supposed to be a comedy! I did have a good time, though, and I appreciated the cleverness of the writing… But still, could it be that Mamet is being too clever for his own good? Here’s a film that film critics will enjoy, but I seriously doubt it will find itself an audience.

The premise of the film has a Hollywood cast and crew making an impromptu change of location after an indiscretion by one of the stars and arriving in the picturesque small town of Waterford, Vermont. This is the kind of old-fashioned little country town which seems to spring out of a 1950s sitcom, with white picket fences, a Dalmatian running around the fire station and a doctor who makes house calls. Basically, the film is about the clash between the superficial, cynical Hollywood world and quiet small-town life. There is no real big plot, just little stories between the large cast of characters. Most of it revolves around the movie’s hard-ass producer (David Paymer) and the bullshitting director (William H. Macy) who must cope with a production that seems about to crash down every minute now. For once, the film is called “The Old Mill” and they don’t even have an old mill to shoot in! Then there’s Macy’s female lead (Sarah Jessica Parker, very enjoyable in bimbo mode) is suddenly reticent about her nude scenes even though it was in her contract, and his A-list star (Alec Baldwin) not only makes fussy demands about his diet and script changes, but also entertains an interest in underage girls. So when Julia Stiles‘ young, pretty character comes to his hotel room to deliver his food, well…

Meanwhile, on the fringes of this mayhem, the extraordinary Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the film’s soft-spoken screenwriter, an earnest former playwright not really ready for the corrupt Hollywood lifestyle. Mamet has him meeting a nice, intelligent bookseller (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s beautiful wife) who helps him with script changes, shows him around town… and steals his heart. Hack romantic comedy writers everywhere should take notes: rarely have I seen a developing love affair so enjoyable and realistic on screen. Maybe it’s Mamet’s sharp writing, or the way that, as a director, he gives the characters time to get to know -and appreciate- each other, or it might be the chemistry between Pidgeon and Hoffman (who keeps confirming his status as one of the best working actors with every movie)… Or maybe it’s all of that together. In any way, all of the scenes between the two of them are wonderful.

It’s also interesting how the themes of the film Hoffman is writing reflect on what happens. Its protagonists are reaching for purity, yet off screen Baldwin sleeps with a teenage fan (Stiles) and Parker is a dim-witted slut. There’s also talk of getting a second chance, and Hoffman somehow gets that himself. I don’t want to go into it in detail, but at some point Hoffman is caught in a dilemma between telling the truth and risking his career or compromising his convictions to save the film. That’s interesting too, and so is Mamet’s satirical portrayal of the ways of Hollywood people, even though, as I said, it’s never quite laugh-out-loud funny. Overall, “State and Main” is an odd case. It packs a lot of talent behind and in front of the camera, but somehow all of this doesn’t quite gel into a great film. A very good one, for sure, but not as good as you’d want it to be. For my money, last year’s Steve Martin-penned “Bowfinger”, which covered some of the same ground, was both wittier and way, way funnier. Still, if only for the understated romance between Hoffman and Pidgeon, “State and Main” is well worth seeing.