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'State and Main': An Inspired Intersection

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2000


    'State and Main' Rebecca Pidgeon and Phillip Seymour Hoffman hash things out in "State and Main."
(Fine Line Features)
There seems to be no end to the troubles facing the beleaguered movie crew in "State and Main." But in David Mamet's relentlessly funny satire, trouble is good.

After losing a prime location in New Hampshire, the filmmakers (a group of nerve-jangled, cellphone-toting West Coasters) are forced to switch locales to the sleepy town of Waterford, Vt.

Seems like the perfect setting for a 19th-century drama. And most importantly, Waterford has a water mill, an essential part of the film-within-a-film.

But when director Walt Price (William H. Macy) arrives with the crew, he discovers the mill is gone. It burned down sometime in the 1960s. Walt springs into action – the kind of action that makes any Hollywood filmmaker successful. He asks scriptwriter Joe White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to write around this setback.

Joe, a sweet-natured, earnest playwright, who's new to Hollywood-style, seat-of-the-pants troubleshooting, studies his manuscript, the one titled "The Old Mill."

And a crackling ensemble comedy is born. Mamet, best-known for writing verbally clipped encounters between desperate men, switches to a lighter but no less intense mode.

Gleaned from Mamet's personal, hellish experiences as a director and screenplay writer, "State and Main" flows with wicked, uncorked conviction. But there's a delicacy to this drink. A conscious tribute to Hollywood satirist Preston Sturges, it's a wicked wine rather than a bucket of blood.

When Joe seeks out a new typewriter – his prized manual has been mislaid somewhere between New Hampshire and Vermont – he obtains one from bookstore owner Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon), a kindred spirit, who's unfortunately engaged to Doug MacKenzie (Clark Gregg), an ambitious politician determined to squeeze money out of the visitors.

As Joe and Ann, the two purest souls in Waterford, get to know each other better, the production encounters further problems. Leading man Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), who has an uncontrollable thing for underage beauties, sets his sights almost immediately on Carla (Julia Stiles). To make things worse, she's a less-than-naive teenager who knows how to make herself available.

Meanwhile, Bob's costar, Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) is thinking twice about that nude scene – even though she's contracted to do it. And when the mayor (Charles Durning) and his wife (Patti LuPone) invite the producers to dinner at their house, you know the filmmakers are going to accidentally blow that date.

As expected, Bob's dalliance with Carla leads to disaster, which compromises the production's standing with local authorities. Although Carla keeps quiet about the whole business, politician Doug keeps sniffing around for blackmail opportunities.

Walt and his producer-partner Marty Rossen (David Paymer) put pressure on Joe (a reluctant witness to an unfortunate incident that takes place on Main Street) to lie for the sake of the movie. What's a pure-spirited guy to do?

Mamet's cast – many of them members of his informal troupe – brings essential heft and a sort-of three-dimensional credibility to the comedy. Macy, who has originated several roles for Mamet's plays, is one of the screen's most underrated treasures. He's the perfect Hollywood survivor: charming or downright conniving, depending on the situation.

The others are uniformly good, including Baldwin and Parker, who make wonderfully harebrained stars. Essentially, they're overgrown children dragging oversize egos behind them. But this movie's not all ensemble silliness. There's a surprisingly engaging relationship between Hoffman and Pidgeon (another underrated actor, who appeared in Mamet's "Homicide," "The Spanish Prisoner" and "The Winslow Boy"). We see that something good has come of this cultural collision between Hollywood and small-town America, a relationship that's built on trust, not agent negotiation.

"State and Main" (R, 102 minutes) – Contains sexual situations, obscenity and minor violence.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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