by Greg Muskewitz
State and Main is a subtle little gem of a film brought to us by consistent deliverer, David Mamet. It is a clever, literate small-town comedy that works both on the surface as a simple cheery comedy, or as an allegoric parable about redemption and second chances amidst the wacky, chaotic presence of an on-location movie crew.Director Walt Price (William H. Macy) has relocated to the small town of Waterford, Vermont to film The Old Mill, after an altercation with the police in the previous town, mainly his leading actor, Bob Barrenger's (Alec Baldwin) proclivity for 14-year-old girls. ("It's his birthday; get him half a 28-year-old.") Problems immediately arise upon arrival in Waterford (The actual old mill has burnt down years ago, the writer's typewriter gets lost, the main actress doesn't want to bare her breasts --"They can draw it from memory," etc.). The initial compromises and fixes come when the screenwriter, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is assisted by a local bookstore owner and theatrical director Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon). More help is on the way when the mayor and his wife (Charles Durning, Patti LuPone) eagerly give out the permit for the shoot, but an equal amount of trouble is on the horizon when a restaurant owner's (Mamet usual, Ricky Jay) daughter, the ripely-aged Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles) makes herself known around Bob.
"It is safe to say that 'State and Main' is one of the best films of 2000."
The thing with State and Main is that the way Mamet assiduously handles his characters, managing not to neglect any one for too long. There is a strong presence of chaos throughout, but through the goofy, gaggy level of highjinxs, Mamet doesn't allow it to boil over or consume and vex the audience; the way that he does it, is the way Mike Figgis could have/should have done it in Time Code. All of these characters are interesting, but Mamet never forces any one of them on us, leaving open the option for disdain among your own accordance despite the laughs (e.g. Clark Gregg, David Paymer, Baldwin, Macy --for the second half).
Mamet dutifully treats each proceeding segment of characters without bias, but the most appealing story-spinning comes from Hoffman and Pidgeon's budding relationship, and their search for redemption and second chances. ("Redemption is not offered once, but continually," or "The only second chance I get is to make the same mistake again") Maybe their storyline is emphasized a little harder than the others, but those others are treated with an equal amount of interest by Mamet, which is rare in most ensemble pieces. The themes and motifs become all the more clear near the film's denouncement (I saw it a second time before drawing my conclusion) --unlike Bamboozled, which grew further away from its themes by the end, but State and Main is still highly in the process of development and cranking it out at the beginning to latch firmly on.
At one point, when things were looking for myopic for Bob after he is in a car accident while Carla is in his presence (on the intersection of State St. and Main St.), and a budding politician (Gregg) is hot to trot with some info he learns about their tryst. During this, almost a moral conflict (and I think Mamet shows where he stands on the issue), but it becomes equivocal whether we should be rooting for Baldwin/Stiles to get away without punishment, or whether we want this naïve, petty lawyer/politician to bust them. Suffice to say, our morals don't have to make a decision --we get a fair compromise.
Being an out-of-Hollywood satire, but still waving its butt at them, State and Main (original script by Mamet) both has a share of hits ("What's an associate producer's credit?"/"It's what they give to your secretary instead of a raise") and misses ("Did you see the grosses for Ghandi II?"), but more often hits. The cast is mostly winners. Favorites who shine here are Pidgeon, Hoffman, Stiles, Macy and Jay, while non-faves Gregg, Matt Molloy, Paymer, Michael Higgins and Durning are good too. On the other hand, Baldwin, a turned-hack actor, cannot achieve buoyancy to Mamet's dictum, Sarah Jessica Parker cannot act (Patricia Arquette would have been so much better), and LuPone just annoys.
David Mamet rigorously controls his direction like a hustling poker player. His dialogue is very droll and austere, pari passu to The House of Games, The Winslow Boy, The Spanish Prisoner, etc., in the way that we've expected Mamet to write. Even though it sounds unreal, it sounds great. State and Main barrenly looks good, photographed by Oliver Stapleton, but to be anal, Mamet should have been more demanding of his editor, Barbara Tulliver, who slips up with small (but noticeable enough for me) continuity cuts. See the smile, see no smile, see the smile again. It breaks up the rhythm of reality on occasion. It's dismissable.
Now, as the year comes to an end, and I'm not in the position anymore of last minute jockeying on my Top Ten, State and Main has proved to be one of the year's best films, and one of the ten best as well (it's number 8 on my list). It's skillful and expertly executed.Final Verdict: A.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4702&reviewer=172
originally posted: 01/07/01 08:50:04