David Mamet is a writer you have to be familiar with if you want to talk about movies. You can hate him, and there’s really only two options, but you’re going to want to know what Mamet means. He’s got a strong list of credits to his name and I’ve mentioned many of his qualities in my review of Heist (2001) (review), but I just watched State and Main (2000) and saw the other side of Mamet. Because there’s hard-boiled Mamet, and then there’s screwball comedy Mamet like you find in Wag the Dog (1997) and State and Main. But even in screwball, Mamet has his particular threading. Much like the darker films, it isn’t entirely clear sometimes if the dialogue is a non sequitor or if you’ve just missed something. Why never admit you can type? I don’t know, but for some reason it’s hilarious.
Hollywood is coming to town. After some kind of mishap, director Walt Price (William H. Macy) can’t film in New Hampshire anymore, so they come to the sleepy town of Waterford, VT as a substitute. It’s perfect, they’ve got this old mill, that they call “The Old Mill”, which they need for their movie, currently titled The Old Mill. This is writer Joe White’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) big shot to move from the stage to the screen and Walt needs him to find creative ways to fix his problems. First, he’s got to find something instead of the old mill because, it turns out, the old mill burned down in the 60’s (during which there was a spate of suspicious fires). Also, the lead actress Claire (Sarah Jessica Parker) doesn’t want to show her boobs during the nude scene. Oh, and the stud lead actor, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) has an eye for the younger ladies, particularly Carla (Julia Stiles). Hey everybody needs a hobby. And Joe has his eyes turned by a terrific local named Ann (Rebecca Pidgeon) who is something of a creative muse for him. Lucky for Walt, producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer) comes along to work out some of the issues that erupt around town, often sprouting from the ambitious, officious prosecutor Doug (Clark Gregg), who really just has his eyes on a seat in Congress.
As you might expect from Mamet, this is a sharply paced, incisive look at the film industry from producers to interns, actors to writers. Happily, it only takes one viewing to thoroughly enjoy. The writing is a major part of that, certainly, but I want to credit the cast in a big way. With writers of a particular voice, and you see this especially in lesser Woody Allen movies, if the actors can’t make it their own (or get right on board), the dialogue becomes nonsense. All the illusion dies in a way that simply doesn’t happen in a Farrelly Brothers comedy. Most everyone in the cast had done a Mamet film before—Macy, Pidgeon, and Ricky Jay are constant presences—or would do another in the future, proof-positive that they know what they’re doing. Rebecca Pidgeon, I thought, was fantastic in this movie. She elevated Hoffman’s character from the barely bearable to the only story I want on screen.
The story is possibly a weakness when I look back on it. It feels like it jumps around, possibly sprawls. However, I never felt that way while watching the movie. I just took every moment as it came and loved them all. It’s an insider comedy and making fun of directors is as satisfying as making fun of actors or sympathizing with hapless writers. It probably could have stood to add fifteen minutes to flesh out some of the political elements more. The pieces with the mayor seem slightly functional upon reflection—a weak joke with a lot of set-up and not much pay-off. Otherwise, everyone gets their proportionate screentime. And all of the characters are so distinct and voiced perfectly by their performers, that you really get a great salad texture to this movie.
Good lord, I just said a movie was a salad and I meant it in a good way. Alright, that’s it. We’re done here.
Definite recommend for rent or buy.