Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it ain’t fun. It’s entertainment.
Here I go again, discovering a filmmaker much later than I should. Looking at David Mamet’s filmography, both as a writer and as a director, I see exactly two movies for which he wrote the screenplay that I’ve seen: The Untouchables and Ronin. Yes, my gentle readers, I have never seen Glengarry Glen Ross or The Winslow Boy or Wag the Dog or The Spanish Prisoner or The Postman Always Rings Twice. (Can someone please tell me why New Line has not released Glengarry Glen Ross on DVD in Region 1? I’d really love to hear a reason.) I really hate admitting these gaps in my viewing record, the vestiges of my cinematic ignorance. I can, however, now say that I am quite the admirer of Mamet’s distinctive writing style, even if his fans say State and Main is one of his weaker efforts. Even if it is one of his weaker films, it was one of my favorites of 2000 and is among the greatest films ever on the subject of filmmaking. I get along with this movie like dykes and dogs…
If filmmaking is war, then the aggressive forces of Hollywood are looking to annex the tiny town of Waterford, Vermont and take its residents as prisoners of war. Like the French Resistance, they’re not taking it lying down, as they fight back with every scheming trick at their disposal. At the head of the Hollywood legions is director Walt Price (William H. Macy), overseen by his producer, Marty Rossen (David Paymer). Leading the insurgency is the town’s mayor (Charles Durning) and an ambitious councilman (Clark Gregg). Caught in the middle, the Romeo and Juliet among the Montagues and Capulets (to drop my World War II metaphor for the moment), are Joe White (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon). Joe White is a playwright penning his first screenplay (hmm, sound like a certain playwright turned screenwriter and director?), caught in the middle of the Hollywood maelstrom. It is his screenplay, “The Old Mill,” that is being produced in this New England battleground. Ann Black owns a bookstore and directs the small town’s theatrical troupe. The two form a tentative bond amidst the chaos.
I hope that gives you a glimpse of the adroit story at the heart of State and Main. We all know that filmmaking can be arduous for all involved — the movies themselves have told us, in everything from Sullivan’s Travels to The Player, Singin’ In The Rain to Get Shorty. Heck, we could even mention Boogie Nights, but that’s a film of a different color. Mamet handles the shenanigans with what could almost be called a sweet sense of humor, if this were not a David Mamet film and the characters weren’t given to swearing like Joe Pesci.
State and Main seems like an ensemble movie with little focus on a specific protagonist or a distinct plot, because there are many story thread intertwined with characters who all seem to be equally important. However, it’s clear after viewing the film that the focus was Joe White, played with naïve charm by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman has made a career to this point with distinguished character roles — a spoiled rich kid in Scent of a Women, the grave personal assistant in The Big Lebowski, an ill-fated playboy in The Talented Mr. Ripley — and it pleases me to see him in what is, for all intents and purposes, the lead in a film. Joe sees his screenplay as a story about the quest for purity, while the director and producers see it as just another vehicle for its stars and a way to make money (it’s somewhat dated now, but they want to slip a product placement for an unusually named dot-com into the period romance). Joe’s real dilemma comes about halfway through the film when he witnesses the star, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin, never slimier), in a car wreck with an underage Waterford girl (Julia Stiles…what red-blooded straight male wouldn’t want her?). Barrenger has a knack for getting in trouble with nubile young girls (“Everyone needs a hobby”), and was responsible for the production being kicked out of the last town where they tried to film. Price and Rossen want White to keep his mouth shut; he feels he should come forward and tell the authorities. The denouement of his predicament is one of the movie’s highlights.
I’ve already discussed Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the rest of the cast is remarkable. The most instantly recognizable are the two stars of “The Old Mill,” Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s tempting to say that they play these characters as caricatures of themselves, and perhaps they are, but I think it’s more accurate to say that they’re playing caricatures of the stereotypical ingénue prima donna STAR. I haven’t enjoyed seeing Alec Baldwin this much in a film since Beetlejuice, or Sarah Jessica Parker since L.A. Story. I really like William H. Macy. His most memorable roles have been as real sleazebags, but sleazebags who are oppressed by some external force, like his overbearing father-in-law in Fargo or the wife who slept with everyone except him in Boogie Nights. He turns the tables here, playing Rossen as the actor’s worst nightmare bastard director. Even worse is David Paymer as producer Marty Rossen. Do you remember him as the weasely taxicab company guy in Payback? Take that character, multiply the weaselocity (new word…you read it here first, folks) by one hundred, and set the overacting factor at zero, and you have Marty Rossen. David O. Selznick had nothing on this guy, and I can’t imagine any other actor in the role. Rebecca Pidgeon got her role in State and Main through good old-fashioned nepotism — she’s David Mamet’s wife — but that’s not to say she’s not talented, because her Ann is the perfect foil to Joe. These are just the most memorable performances; Charles Durning, Clark Gregg (did you know he was the screenwriter of What Lies Beneath?), Patti LuPone, Julia Stiles, Jim Frangione, and Lionel Mark Smith also give grand, memorable performances.
As for the DVD, perhaps all I need to say is that it’s a New Line release. There…review’s over.
Oh, okay, I’ll give you more details. The film is presented in both its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and an open matte 1.33:1 transfer. The transfer is very clean and makes for pleasant viewing. Colors are slightly muted, but I believe that was Mamet’s intention, for it adds to the Norman Rockwell picturesqueness of Waterford. Edge enhancement and dust speckles are kept to a minimum, but do appear occasionally. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a very dialogue-centric film (duh…it’s a David Mamet movie), so the audio is confined mostly to the front channels. If you want to show off your system, look elsewhere, but this track handles its primary duty — dialogue — with aplomb.
This is not a Platinum Series or Infinifilm disc, but it nonetheless contains a set of extras that can and should put studios like Paramount to shame. You get: a commentary, a theatrical trailer, and a nice selection of DVD-ROM features. Okay, so that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s quality that counts. The commentary contains the enlightening comments of Sarah Jessica Parker, William H. Macy, David Paymer, Clark Gregg, and Patti LuPone. The unfortunate thing is their comments were recorded separately and edited together. The fortunate thing is their comments are all enlightening and entertaining, and it’s a delightful track to give a listen. The trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and is an amusing look at the movie (okay, and you’ll see that my warfare analogy wasn’t exactly original). The DVD-ROM features give you a script to screen comparison and the film’s original website (uses too much Flash animation, but has some good material). There was also a link called “Hot Spot,” but it went to a 404 error (but maybe that is just a fault of the “test disc” we were sent for review).
Why no David Mamet commentary? Or Philip Seymour Hoffman? Other than that, perfect movie and more than adequate disc.
State and Main comes highly recommended. You may want to give it a rental first, because its humor might go over the heads of some, but otherwise at $24.98 it has the rewatchability to be a must-buy.