State and Main

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

STATE AND MAIN

2/10

US 2000

dir & scr David Mamet

cin Oliver Stapleton

stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H Macy, Alec Baldwin, Rebecca Pidgeon, Sarah Jessica Parker

104 minutes

Scene-by-scene, State and Main is funny, entertaining, witty, sharp. But as a whole, it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth: an unpleasant flavour of arrogance, proving there’s more to making a good movie than writing clever lines and hiring brilliant actors as mouthpieces. And these are mouthpieces, not characters: they all speak the same, in Mamet’s trademarked halting, stuttering inflections, a mannerism that becomes increasingly irritating as the film unfolds.

The story itself is as old-fashioned and predictable as the caricatures who perform it. A small town in New England is taken over by a big-budget Hollywood production, and the exasperated director (Macy) must deal with a wayward, skirt-chasing star (Baldwin), a temperamental leading lady (Parker), and a greenhorn young playwright (Hoffman) who, horrified at the liberties being taken with his script, embarks on a nervous romance with the local bookseller (Pidgeon).

You could pitch it as The Player meets Cookie’s Fortune, but while Robert Altman lets his camera and actors float in an agreeable haze of improvisation and experimentation, Mamet nails everything down, his insistence on every line being spoken just so taking all the fun out of what should be a freewheeling, crazy comedy, and making the audience feel oppressed by the worst kind of pretentious showoff.

Altman may not be the most kind-hearted of directors, but at least he trusts his performers – Mamet traps them in a rigid grid of syllables. Macy, Hoffman and David Paymer, as a slimeball Hollywood producer, are talented enough to emerge pretty much unscathed, though Julia Stiles deserves a special mention for somehow making her underwritten lines sound as if a human being’s speaking them.

State and Main sets up gag after gag, only to either fritter them away or, worse, leave them dangling: at the start everybody bangs on about the town’s most prized and valuable relic, a stained-glass window Macy wants to remove in order to execute a key crane shot. The cinematographer smashes the window in a casual aside, and nothing more is said – we don’t even see the shot being executed, or if the results were worth the vandalism. Likewise, characters keep mentioning a mysterious spate of fires ignited by a ‘disgruntled adolescent’ in 1960, a running joke which leads… nowhere.

Mamet has written or directed numerous Hollywood movies, many of them big-budget, but you’d never guess it from State and Main. It shows about as much insight into the process of film directing and production as you might glean from a single afternoon on set, and the actual film within the film, The Old Mill, retitled Fires of Home, looks more like a cut-price historical TV movie than a potential blockbuster.

All of this wouldn’t be quite so bad if Mamet didn’t suddenly decide, late on, he wanted to make an important statement about truth and artistic integrity. Hoffman witnesses a car smash involving Baldwin and the underaged Stiles. Will he come forward and testify, and thus wreck his own career? Or will he follow Pidgeon’s advice and tell the truth? There’s something objectionable about the way these stick-figures become pawns in a Mamet’s philosophical morality game, and something crude and demeaning about the way Hoffman’s struggle is finally resolved. It’s also noticeable that, after the accident, Mamet treats Stiles’ character with as much callous disconcern as the ‘movie people’ he invites us to hiss.

Because it’s David Mamet, there’s an inclination to give the benefit of the doubt. State and Main has been called a masterpiece, one of the Films of the Year. Perhaps the whole thing is a parody, a super-ironic joke of a ‘bad movie,’ with intricate levels of meaning behind the ham-fisted clumsiness of the surface. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that most of the music recalls Aimee Mann’s ‘Momentum’ from Magnolia, and that the plot rips off Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty from 1985. Well, perhaps. Or perhaps Mamet’s contempt for his actors, characters and audiences does shine through every scene. Perhaps the whole thing stinks.