Film Reviews


By • Jan 12th, 2001 •

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Rated R, 102 minutes, released by Fine Line Features

State and Main tells an old, familiar story: Hollywood movie crew comes to a sleepy little town and turns it upside down. Money, egos, sex and stardust shake up the locals, who themselves turn out to be not quite as picture-postcard perfect as they first appeared.

But even an old dog can show some new tricks, especially when mining satirical veins as rich as these. So it’s doubly disappointing that State and Main misses so many opportunities, ending up with brilliant parts of an actively annoying whole.

I say “annoying” because even though the film is written as a snappy comedy, loaded with funny lines and classic comedic situations, it unfolds at a strange, stop-and-go pace that makes it seem longer than its 102-minute running time. Since State and Main is both written and directed by David Mamet, it seems that Mamet the writer has been ill-served by Mamet the director. Barbara Tulliver’s editing also slows the movie down, as does Theodore Shapiro’s bland music, heavy on crunchy-granola acoustic guitar.

It’s not that State and Main isn’t funny. Some of the throwaway lines (“Did you see the grosses for Ghandi 2?” is my favorite) are worth the price of admission. But the odd pacing ultimately makes the movie’s satirical jabs feel heavy-more like hammer blows than cream pies.

Another source of discomfort may be that State and Main is telling a fairly bleak story underneath its comedic covering. At first the movie gleefully trashes the amoral, monomaniacal Hollywood types, and Mamet certainly has fun mocking a world he obviously knows well. And just when you thought Mamet and company were going to be condescending to the locals, making them cute, folksy and unworldly, we’re shown that given the opportunity they sink just as low as the morally bankrupt movie folk.

Any feelings of superiority the audience might have toward either (or both) groups is finally replaced by the sick realization that everyone is complicit-the audience especially. We’re all fascinated by the greed and excess of Hollywood, we’re all titillated by the sex lives and the “bad behavior” of the stars. We need them to fill in the blank spaces in our empty little lives, and in return we let them get away with just about anything. Not exactly a light-hearted spoof.

In the press material Mamet has said he was trying for a Preston Sturges-style comedy. This is a high standard to set for oneself. Sturges at his best (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero, Sullivan’s Travels) was able to mix multiple comedic styles (farce, slapstick, comedy of manners-sometimes all in the same scene). He was also adept at using stereotypical “movie” characters while revealing the idiosyncratic truth behind each stereotype. Sturges also had the ability to make audiences laugh while still making his points about Hollywood, small towns, the giddy rich and the less-than-noble poor.

This is tricky stuff for anyone to pull off, then or now, and Mamet does deserve points for coming as close as he has with State and Main. He’s definitely stretching himself as a director (he has directed his own screenplays for the clever House of Games and Things Change as well as the overrated Spanish Prisoner, among others). Here he tries for, and occasionally achieves, deadpan comedic effects by using Altmanesque long takes and overlapping dialogue, capturing the constant activity, lightning-fast decisions and multiple 180-degree turnarounds required to make a movie on location. But even Altman has been having trouble bringing off such scenes in his recent films (witness the glorious mess that is Dr. T and the Women.) Ultimately State and Main is a mass of good ideas that don’t quite pay off.

So what works in State and Main? Well, Mamet has assembled an amazing cast, and even if the characters are familiar types they seem to be having a good time playing with them. William H. Macy shines as the film’s maniacally manipulative, sublimely sarcastic director. Macy, one of the best character actors working today (he should have won the Academy Award for Fargo), is an old friend and colleague of Mamet’s, and he gets the film’s best lines. Alec Baldwin is the pampered, amoral male superstar with a taste for teenage girls. His motto/explanation is simple: “Everybody has to have a hobby.”

Sarah Jessica Parker plays the movie’s blonde bimbette of a star with her usual expertise, although she’s allowed to show more range in any given episode of her TV series “Sex and the City.” David Paymer beautifully embodies the film’s meaner-than-a-shark producer, while Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the holy fool/na├»ve writer, integral to the moviemaking process yet perpetually out of the loop.

The locals shine a bit less brightly than the movie folk, though that seems to be part of State and Main’s overall scheme. Charles Durning is the town’s easygoing, put-upon mayor, and Patti LuPone as his Martha Stewart-on-steroids wife makes the most of her few scenes. Clark Gregg as an ambitious local politician has some nice moments, as does Julia Stiles’ unlikely teenage temptress.

Rebecca Pidgeon plays the film’s most problematic character-problematic because she’s too good to be true, even in this cockeyed universe. She’s the owner of the local bookstore and director of the (quickly abandoned) local play, and just as quickly enchants the film’s writer (Hoffman). She’s also one of the few characters in the film with any kind of moral center. In fact, she seems to be a Practically Perfect Person-even down to her whimsical sense of humor. While there’s nothing wrong with Pidgeon’s performance, her character’s actions push the film into a magical-realist Twilight Zone that adds further confusion to the already overstuffed plotlines.

Movie buffs should definitely see State and Main; it’s made by people who have a passionate love/hate affair with Hollywood and is crammed with inside jokes. Everybody else, however, may scratch their heads and wonder what all the fuss is about.

Starring Alec Baldwin, Charles Durning, Clark Gregg, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Patti LuPone, William H. Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, David Paymer, Rebecca Pidgeon, Julia Stiles

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