Wednesday, January 25, 2012

From My Collection: State and Main Movie Review

Robert Altman’s brilliant 1992 return to form The Player gets all the ink when it comes to Hollywood satire. It is a fantastic piece of work – suspenseful and darkly comic. But re-watching State and Main, David Mamet’s comedy about a Hollywood production that tears apart a small New England town, I realized this has to be ranked as one of the great satirical films. What makes it more remarkable is that Mamet was primarily known for his thrillers, set up as complex confidence games. Although it was not nearly as much a departure as his 1999 film The Winslow Boy, a G-rated period piece family drama about a boy accused of theft at his school. State and Main is as biting and funny as his great screenplay for Wag the Dog, a satire of the political process.


Mamet seems to have a way of presaging calamitous national events as when the plot of Wag the Dog closely mimicked the Monica Lewinsky scandal before the story even broke. Similarly, a well-placed and offhand remark about the absurdity of the electoral process gained a whole new resonance shortly after its Toronto Film Festival premiere when the great Bush/Gore debacle began in Florida. That kind of serendipity is like catching lightning in a bottle once and he did it twice!

The first time I saw State and Main I didn’t quite catch just how pointed the satire is. I thought it was incredibly funny, but it didn’t occur to me that Mamet was attempting something bigger. Now older and perhaps a bit more cynical I wonder if the phoniness of the relationships and the transparently insincere affection and appeasement between cast and crew (generally the most appeasement is directed at the cast) found its beginnings in what Mamet himself witnessed throughout his career up to that point.

Mamet worked as a screenwriter for hire on several big Hollywood films before directing his own first feature. It should come as no surprise that the closest thing to a protagonist in State and Main and the only honorable person in the production is the writer, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He keeps telling people that his screenplay is about the quest for purity. And he finds it in Annie, the owner of the town bookstore and leader of the local drama club. Annie, in all her hokey small town innocence is played by none other than Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon. But she’s engaged to Doug (Clark Gregg), an upstart politician dead set on milking the movie production for as much money as possible. William H. Macy is Walt Price, the film’s director, whose job very often involves being the mediator between the unsparing producer (David Paymer) and Claire Wellesley, the leading lady played by Sarah Jessica Parker with the kind of pep and vigor you would expect from a Hollywood starlet trying desperately to maintain her image. Alec Baldwin is her costar Bob Barrenger, a big time movie star on the level of someone like Alec Baldwin.

Rounding out the cast of recognizable faces is Julia Stiles as a teenager who gets in over her head with Barrenger, a man with a penchant for getting into trouble with underage girls (a fact that is tossed around like a joke amongst the crew without even a hint of irony), and Ricky Jay as her unsuspecting father. Finally Charles Durning is the mayor and Patti LuPone his wife, eager to please what she sees as West Coast sophisticates by dressing up her home and guests as if it were the middle of the 19th century.

Everyone on the production needs coddling: Bob gets three adjoining rooms in the town’s hotel and Claire arrives to a room decked out with lilacs, her favorite flower. Disgruntled crew members are placated with “an associate producer credit,” which one character informs is what you give your secretary instead of a raise. Walt has a little pillow he can’t shoot without. The cinematographer, an Italian artiste, insists he can’t get the opening shot he needs without altering the firehouse. Even Joseph needs his manual typewriter to get cracking on the rewrites that are necessary due to the town’s lack of an old mill. This is only a minor inconvenience to Walt even though it’s a movie called “The Old Mill.”

Mamet’s screenplay is rife with wonderfully genius little one-liners. At times it feels like a hodgepodge designed to air many of his grievances with his chosen profession, but that doesn’t keep it from being a riot. And of course the dialogue bears the tell-tale rhythms of Mamet-speak, that enviable and inimitable style utilizing such precision of language that every punctuation mark is deliberate and his actors must know that and include it in their performances.

The central romance between Joe and Annie gives it some heart and keeps the movie from becoming a dull list of gripes and complaints about Hollywood phonies. But there’s no denying that he intended to depict the screenwriter as a put-upon nobody and the least valued person on set even while the bosses pay lip service to his words being the most important thing. Even Claire can’t help heaping bogus praise on the beautiful speech he’s written.

Mamet is an equal opportunity offender, however, as not even the townspeople escape unscathed. Though they are depicted as aspiring to high morals and clean living, they are also sycophants, reveling in the presence of perceived greatness. The hotel manager stammers at the prospect of having a real live movie star in his place of business, and ushers the adoring children away just to stand next to Bob Barrenger. Annie’s drama club falls to pieces when her cast decides to try for parts as extras in the more illustrious Hollywood drama. Doug appears to be the only one immune to the beguiling ways of the production crew, but even he, like most people, eventually succumbs to the allure of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

As the last line of the film, spoken by Baldwin, tells us, “It beats working.” Indeed it does. I’m not sure Mamet agrees with that sentiment, but I don’t think any character in State and Main would disagree.

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