State and Main (2000) ***
Written and directed by David Mamet. Photography, Oliver Stapleton. Editing, Barbar Tulliver. Production design, Gemma Jackson. Producer Sarah Green. Music, Theodore Shapiro. Cast: Alec Baldwin, Charles Durning , Clark Gregg, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Patti LuPone, William H. Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, David Paymer, Rebecca Pidgeon, Julia Stiles. A Fine Line release. 102 minutes. R (language, allusions to sex)
The so-talented Rebecca Pidgeon is in real life Mrs. David Mamet. I saw her last in her husband's excellent remale of "The Winslow Boy." Here she plays Ann, a smalltown bookseller, the leader of the dramatic society, and the fiancee of obnoxious lawyer and local politico Doug MacKenzie (Clark Gregg). There's no true love between the two, but then really small towns have really small opportunities. Soon that man will be evinced by a quiet, lovely affair between Ann and visiting scriptwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman.) The new relationship--like most of the other aspects of the movie--is a gem of originality, as is Ann's charming wisdom. Quietly, without pretentiousness or sententiousness, she speaks pearls. One of them goes: "You make your own fun. Otherwise, it's entertainment."
Triple threat playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet must be having the time of his life by making his own fun here by satirizing out and out the making and makers of movies. Director Walt Price (William Macy) has been looking for locations to shoot the late-19th century opus "The Old Mill." He had found the ideal place and mill in New Hampshire, but circumstances obliged the movie crew to run away. The replacement is Waterford, Vermont, a spot as colorful in sights and denizens as any invented by Hollywood. (Even the rain looks like movie-rain.)
Walt is everything you didn't want to know about a name director and about films -- if you want to keep your illusions about the practitioners of the Seventh Art. Both in turns and simultaneously he is imperious, rude, demanding, cajoling, foul-mouthed, clever, imaginative, impossible, inventive, Napoleonic and Machiavellian. His declining star Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) has a pronounced taste for young, school-age girls --which inevitably leads to troubles. First-time screenwriter Joe White is sweet, insecure and lost without his manual typewriter which disappeared between New Hampshire and Vermont. He finds in smart, tolerant Ann a rod, a staff, a muse and an object of his affections.
Claire, the projected film's female lead, has mega-problems, to which she adds a refusal to bare her breasts on-camera. This has something to do with her "purity," though an additional $800.000 would change her mind. The casting of Sarah Jessica Parker is inspired given her roles in TV's "Sex in the City."
Marty Rossen, the shyster lawyer who is the film's producer, is never short of arguments and ploys. He's the kind of beast who would do anything to get what he wants -- in fact he is like the classic definition of "chutzpah" where a man who killed his father and mother throws himself at the mercy of the Court "because I'm an orphan."
Add mid-teenager Carla (Julia Stiles, who must have been 18 when the movie was shot). She helps her dad with food services at the hotel where everybody is staying. In a clever twist, she seduces seducer Bob --and everything concerning the making of "The Old Mill"'s comes to a halt, while other developments stress venality, including lawyer MacKenzie's. By sheer coincidence some echoes of the year 2000's stolen Presidential election add some serious weight to the politics of the situation.
(By the way, the Old Mill of Waterford turns out to having been torched in 1960 by, probably, a destructive schoolboy.)
The film may be a series of catastrophes but they are all presented so juicily, amusingly, hilariously, winningly and wittily that they five the movie its several "raisons d'etre." Details are splendidly sketched out. Characters and situations are all different from one another while movie cliches are given freshness and originality. .
The cast and team of both "State and Main" and "The Old Mill" are rather small but do wonders thanks to Mamet's quick, sharp (or obtuse-on-purpose) dialogue. He handles language like a prestidigitator, directs with ease. Many of the stars have been in Mamet films: Macy, Paymer, Pidgeon, LuPone.
Non sequiturs or absurd logic enrich the text. Inventiveness reigns: at the hotel, the traffic in people, rooms, doors opening or closing is coordinated like a Georges Feydeau farce. In the hotel's cafe, two regular, chorus-like old-timers read Variety and talk technically of inflated movie profits. The whole production feels like a renaissance of older, classic screwball comedies --but not of slapstick pics.
Macy and Paymer repeat the old joke about naming people Associate Producer instead of paying them, yet the gag is always fresh. Paymer wants to ammortize expenses by bringing in product placement in the film, computer advertising ... in 1895, that is. Sure enough, by the end, some of the "inner" movie's shots shows an ad for a livery stable, and beneath it, one for Bazoomer computers.
Of course, we never find out what "The Old Mill" is about.
Do not stand up and leave the theater while end-credits are rolling. The humor continues until the lights go up.