CHEERFUL, MUTUAL corruption lies at the heart of David Mamet's new comedy, a farcical collision between a Hollywood moviecrew and the tiny, snow dome-perfect town of Waterford, Vt. Clearly, Mamet would like us to see State and Main as his entry into the mad universe of Preston Sturges (particularly Sullivan's Travels with its willfully innocent Hollywood folk). That's pretty wishful thinking. Actually, State doesn't even have the consistent incisiveness or perfect pitch of Mamet's cowritten script for Wag the Dog, which watched Hollywood and Washington co-opt each other. (State and Dog do share one gift: almost preternaturally good timing. When he wrote State last year, even Mamet couldn't have imagined that one deadpan exchange about the Electoral College would turn into the movie's most explosive laugh. You just can't beat fate.)
STATE AND MAIN
written and directed David Mamet with William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Rebecca Pidgeon opens December 22 at Guild 45th and Pacific Place
State gets off to an impeccable start since the Hollywood invasion is spearheaded by William H. Macy as Walt, the beleaguered director of a period drama, The Old Mill. No one does disgrace under pressure better than Macy (Fargo, Boogie Nights), and pressure is what Walt is feeling—thanks to his randy leading man, megastar Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin).
Barrenger's taste for underage girls has already gotten the production abruptly thrown out of New Hampshire; Waterford is its fallback location. Until now, the town's biggest excitement has come from watching cars fall into the pothole precisely at State and Main or from amateur theatricals directed by bookstore owner Ann (Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon, a decidedly acquired taste).
WALT'S OTHER HEADACHES include his picture's costar Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), who, in a major change of heart, has become reluctant to bare all— or at least the half called for by the script. As one flabbergasted on-set insider says, "She takes her shirt off to do a voice-over." Then there's Walt's first-time screenwriter, Joe (Magnolia's fine Philip Seymour Hoffman), who bumbles around, innocent, wide-eyed, and visibly unnerved as The Old Mill's theme, "a quest for purity," gets more and more besmirched.
On hand to besmirch it in a big way is Marty Rossen (David Paymer), Walt's partner/producer, busy being the screaming bad cop to Walt's cooing good cop when it comes to getting talent to toe the line.
Yet as these showbiz folk soon discover, Waterford proves to be equally resourceful. The town's forces include its mayor, Charles Durning (called George Bailey in one of the film's homages to It's a Wonderful Life), and Mamet regular Ricky Jay, as proprietor of the local deli and totally ineffective parent to a headstrong, nubile daughter, Carla (Julia Stiles). Sighting her, Barrenger—an actor who learns nothing even from recent, dire experience—is instantly interested, without realizing that he's the one being stalked. (Carla has studied his every taste from fan mags.)
Finally, there's Ann's fianc饬 aspiring politician Doug (Clark Gregg), so dull and so venal that Ann's romance at first sight with the decidedly un-Hollywood writer, Joe, is almost mandatory. If we're shocked when Doug also turns out to be casually anti-Semitic, just wait: This is Mamet, after all, so when it's Rossen's turn to return his invective, the fun is all ours.
Unfortunately, for all its buoyant promise, State's helium balloon begins to sink somewhere past the movie's middle section. It's possible that in this impoverished year for film (comedies in particular), audiences are so whimperingly grateful for anything literate and funny they may settle for a lively first half and one decent plot twist. On the other hand, a cast like this is a terrible thing to waste on underdeveloped characters and a spluttering ending.