|State and Main|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 19 June 2001|
"This is what my people died for," exults movie director Walt Price. "The right to make a movie in this town!"
The town is Waterford, Vermont, and the movie is 'The Old Mill,' a period romantic melodrama that seems to be about a fireman, a small-town girl and an old mill. To make this epic -- judging from the brief glimpses we get, it's neither better nor worse than most movies -- a Hollywood movie crew has descended upon New England. Chased out of one town, for reasons that later become clear, they've now arrived in this sleepy village where nothing much has, it seems ever happened.
David Mamet wrote and directed 'State and Main,' a mostly very satisfactory comedy with a great ensemble cast and lots of flavorful lines. "Who designed these costumes?" Price shouts. "It looks like Edith Head puked, and that puke designed these costumes!" When he suggests someone tell a big fat fib, he insists, "It's not a lie, it's a gift for fiction."
Mamet himself has a gift for fiction -- or rather, for situations and characters, since he's rarely concerned overmuch with a story per se, and that's as true of 'State and Main' as of any of his other movies. It's a series of incidents, liaisons and clashes between (and among) the townspeople and the movie team; there's a resolution that seems fairly satisfactory for almost everyone involved, but it's really more a matter of gathering in all the threads toward the end.
Price is slightly jittery, a bit oblivious to the townspeople and their concerns, and full of himself, but neither he nor anyone else is presented as a significant asshole. Even big honking star Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), whose passion for 14-year old girls ("everybody needs a hobby," he explains) is what got the moviemakers kicked out of the previous town, is depicted as nothing worse than a self-loving dimwit, not a blackhearted child molester.
The other big star, Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), is Bob's female equivalent without the interest in the youth of America. Her big thing is demanding more money to show her tits in 'The Old Mill,' which puzzles director Price and arriving producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer). Claire's shown them often enough, someone remarks, that the world can draw them from memory.
Meanwhile, soft-spoken Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the screenwriter, is presented with a difficulty: there IS no old mill in Waterford, so the script has to be rewritten. He meets local bookstore owner Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon), who not only has heard of a play he wrote, but sells it in the store. They're attracted to one another, despite her ongoing involvement with ambitious local lawyer Doug MacKenzie (Clark Gregg).
Teenager Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles) learns of Bob's interest in younger women, so to speak, as well as his fondness for bourbon and milk, tuna BLTs, summer afternoons and speed walking, and sets her sights for him. The wife (Patti LuPone) of the mayor (Charles Durning) begins redecorating -- practically rebuilding -- their home for a dinner with the 'Old Mill' team.
'State and Main' ambles along, following one or more of the characters for a while, then smoothly gliding over to another. It's rather casual about some elements; at the beginning, Price's black assistant (not sure who played him) is very prominent in what's going on, but he pretty much disappears about a third of the way through. Also, the big gag at the end, involving a court trial, is rather fanciful and hard to accept. Mamet's direction, as usual, tends to be very stagey in terms of blocking, with theatrical-like entrances and exits, surprises at the expected moments, and the like. It's artificial and overly-structured, but witty and wonderfully cast.
William H. Macy hovers between likable and irritating; David Paymer gets, for once, to be an aggressive, patronizing jerk. Baldwin is somehow adorable as the cheese-brained star, but Parker is on the shrill side as the would-be diva. Hoffman and Stiles are excellent, but Pidgeon (Mamet's wife) is rather too perky as the bookstore owner. She's intended to be the moral center of the film, but mostly she's a little tiresome. Durning is always reliable, very ingratiating as the somewhat bashful mayor (who, as Frank Capra fans might notice, is named George Bailey).
It's an ingratiating, relaxed movie; its view of a movie production team is reasonably accurate, and not especially harsh. The small town is more than a little idealized, however, with a lovable old codger of a doctor, and locals who soon begin talking about grosses and quoting from Variety. But then the entire movie is not intended to express realism, but rather a kind of mild, sunny satire. This it does very winningly.
The DVD's extras are mostly standard. As often with New Line releases, the disc includes both an enhanced widescreen print and a "full-frame" version; as always, the widescreen version is preferable. The sound is competent, but this is not a movie in which there's much in the line of sound effects. The usual trailer and filmographies are included.
The commentary track doesn't feature Mamet, but does include Parker, Macy, Gregg, Paymer and LuPone; they're charming, funny, a little self-deprecating and, since he's not around, inclined to make affectionate jokes about Mamet. (Macy is one of Mamet's favorite actors.)