It’s become something of a rite of passage for maverick filmmakers: biting the hand that feeds them. Sooner or later, whether it’s Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard) or Robert Altman (The Player) or the Coen Brothers (Barton Fink), they all get around to crafting their own versions of the Hollywood satire. With his seventh feature as a writer/director, State and Main, David Mamet joins the club. But far from the scathing warts-and-all expose one might expect from the author of Glengarry Glen Ross and Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Mamet has whipped up a frothy, good-natured screwball comedy; it’s both the lightest and most fully satisfying picture he’s directed to date.
State and Main pits the cast and crew of what appears to be an earnest period melodrama, The Old Mill, against the residents of their filming location, the quintessentially picturesque New England town of Waterford, Vermont. Waterford is actually the production’s second choice of shooting venue, but they’ve already been run out of New Hampshire due to the scandalous behavior of their leading man, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin). Everyone needs a hobby, and Barrenger’s happens to involve underage girls. Director Walt Price (William H. Macy) thinks Waterford is perfect; after all, it already has an old mill, so the production won’t have to shell out the money to build one. When Price learns that the mill in question actually burned down forty years earlier, he commissions The Old Mill‘s playwright-turned-screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to rewrite his original script despite the obvious negative effect it will have on the movie’s title. But White is distracted from his mission when he becomes smitten with Waterford’s drama coach, Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon), who is in turn engaged to a local political hack who smells both money and trouble from the insurgent film crew.
The usual course of events would have the simple but good-hearted natives teaching the soulless Hollywood invaders a lesson or two about small town values, but that’s not what Mamet is up to here. He knows media-saturated America has reached the point where everyone’s a show biz insider; thus a scraggly, Twin Peaks-ish pair of diner denizens chew over Variety’s weekend box office figures while the cook ponders the trajectory of Warner Bros. stock since 1985. Locals and La-La-landers alike get their fair share of jabs, but the tone is generally more affectionate than condescending or malicious. And though the script is peppered with jokey inside references to movie-making (ubiquitous crew t-shirts reading "…does it have to be an old mill…?"; an actor’s request for a "tuna BLT"; a sly poke at product placement involving a dot-com company), the perils of film production are more jumping-off point than primary focus.
Not every moment in State and Main is pure gold; a couple of the subplots exhibit the creakiness endemic to Mamet’s more funhouse notions of storytelling. But the truth is, he could have plopped this cast down in a Denny’s and had them read the menu to each other for two hours, and it would probably still be worth the price of admission. (Don’t think so? Just picture Macy ordering the "Moons Over My Hammy.") Hoffman and Macy are particularly sharp; their roles here feel like reprieves from the schlubby characters they’re so often saddled with. And though it’s hard to pin down exactly why, Rebecca Pidgeon’s performance is one of the movie’s most unexpected delights. In her previous appearances in husband Mamet’s films, she’s come off as almost comically straightjacketed by her stilted delivery of his unique dialogue rhythms. That delivery hasn’t really changed, but there’s a cheerful offhandedness to her presence here; she’s zeroed in on precisely the right tone.
Earlier in his career, Mamet’s screenplays were often in safer hands when he wasn’t behind the camera. James Foley’s jazzy noir take on Glengarry Glenn Ross proved far more incisive than Mamet’s flat attempt at translating his incendiary play Oleanna to the screen. House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner played more like elaborate card tricks than plausible, fully-realized narratives. But with 1999’s The Winslow Boy, Mamet began to come into his own as a director and State and Main finds him in full, confident flourish. As a master of cinematic imagery he won’t be giving Terry Gilliam a run for his money any time soon, but his clean, crisp small town visuals are plenty evocative nonetheless. Meanwhile his signature touch – the clipped verbal stylization that sometimes distracted in previous works – is here seamlessly transformed into snappy wordplay that crackles like a contemporary version of the fast-talking patter associated with 30’s and 40’s comedies. At one point Price barks at one of his lackeys, regarding their star: "Get him whatever he likes!" "He likes fourteen-year-old girls." "Well, get him half a twenty-eight-year-old!" There are dozens of exchanges like this, and while not all of them are quite worthy of Preston Sturges, most are still worlds beyond most of what passes for comic writing at the cineplex today. After all, where else are you going to hear the words "blunderbuss" and "butter churn" used in consecutive sentences? It’s Mamet’s love of language that keeps State and Main popping.