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'State and Main'

Writer-director lightens tone for satirical 'State and Main'

Friday, January 12, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Normally, the works of playwright and filmmaker David Mamet are about as funny as a punch in the mouth. He usually concentrates upon the world of gangsters and businessmen, tending not to find a great deal of difference between the two.

'State And Main'

RATING: R for language and brief sexual images.

STARRING: William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgeon.

DIRECTOR: David Mamet.




On the other hand, some of Hollywood's more notorious business practices have been known to leave the Mob standing slack-jawed in admiration. Elmore Leonard got comic mileage out of the comparison in "Get Shorty." Now, Mamet plays it for laughs in "State and Main."

To be sure, he reserves some of his sarcastic bemusement for the rest of us, who let the stars in our eyes blind us to the insanity of Tinseltown or lead us to treat its peccadilloes as merely part of the show.

Even so, "State and Main" may be the most lighthearted of Mamet's works, consistently entertaining and just cynical enough not to seem smart-assed. In the end, we tend to like even the most reprehensible of the film's rascals, maybe because we can reserve our highest hopes for the two characters who are trying to succeed without compromising their principles.

"State and Main" is a movie about moviemaking. A film crew short on finances and shorter on viable options invades a small town in Vermont in order to shoot a movie called "The Old Mill."

Only there are a few problems, like there is no old mill. They just thought there was. The male star, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), has a weakness for underage girls. The female star, Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), has had a change of heart about doing her nude scene -- but it's nothing that more money wouldn't cure. An ambitious town councilman (Clark Gregg) decides to extort his pound of flesh from the filmmakers for the right to shoot there.

And no one can find a typewriter for mild-mannered screenwriter Joe White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who needs to get cracking on his rewrites -- like ditching the scenes in the old mill, for one thing.

At the epicenter of all these unending crises is director Walt Price (William H. Macy), who has a cell phone growing out of his ear and his eyebrows knitting together into a permanent growth as he growls in an ever higher voice for whoever can fix the next problem.

Meanwhile, the older guys who sit at the local restaurant all day debating about whether to put up a traffic light are soon discussing the latest movie grosses out of Daily Variety.

Much of the pleasure comes in the way Mamet piles on each new mishap with the precision usually reserved for his use of language, and in the ingenious ways that the characters resolve those mishaps. We're all so familiar with how movies are made that you don't have to be associated with the industry to get the joke, although those who are may laugh even harder.

But while these characters talk more naturally than most Mamet creations, they are no sloppier in their speech. The words take on new meanings as they are recycled through the changing situations in the film. The Hollywood types tend to mean exactly the opposite of what they say.

The only innocents turn out to be screenwriter White (another inspired performance by Hoffman, all weak grins and bumbling amiability) and local bookstore owner Ann Black (played by Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon), who runs the local amateur theater and finds a new outlet for her ambition in the film company.

OK, maybe she's not as innocent as she seems. But all's well that ends well and, as one of the actors in "The Old Mill" says, it beats real work.

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