State and Main
Director: David Mamet. Cast: William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Clark Gregg, Charles Durning, Julia Stiles, Patti LuPone, Jim Grangione, Vinne Gustafero. Screenplay: David Mamet.

Hollywood has enjoyed spoofing, skewering, and sending itself up almost as long as it’s been alive, and though the on-set comedy can never be called a “dead” genre, any arrivée to the field is entering in on some distinguished company: Sullivan’s Travels, Singin’ in the Rain, and, in recent years, such different entertainments as Robert Altman’s The Player and Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion. David Mamet shows up at the end of this year, clearly primed for awards attention, with State and Main, his own contribution to this heritage, but for the first time in recent memory, he’s guilty of what is for him a surprising transgression: his film, his direction, and even his script are way too soft. Well, maybe not too soft—it’s not hard to pass a pleasant two hours at State and Main, but it’s not clear whether the film is to be faulted for lacking the bite and wit of Glengarry Glen Ross or Wag the Dog or understood as a completely different, albeit less ambitious, piece of work. Either way, all State and Main has to offer is breezy comfort. If the film is meant as satire, it’s in trouble. If it’s a gentle comedy, we at least approach that destination, but we’ve also been there on many more memorably occasions.

Though constructed by a genuine ensemble of performers, State and Main revolves in particularly around Walt Price (William H. Macy), the director of a location-filmed costume drama, and Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the screenwriter of same. I suppose I shouldn’t really say “same”: one of State and Main’s slyer moves is that, for all the overt shenanigans that do transpire, no one seems to notice that the film ultimately produced by Walt’s dysfunctional crew bears only a passing resemblance to what we heard described from the outset. It’s hard to monitor tiny shifts in content, though, when you’re dealt a real logistical whopper: for example, trying to make a film called The Old Mill in a town without an old mill. Or relying on financing for your 1895 historical piece on an upstart company called, which insists on an on-screen product placement. Or cajoling an actress who, uncharacteristically, won’t remove her shirt in the film but, more characteristically, keeps peeling it off behind the scenes.

Nothing unfunny here, but nothing unfamiliar. The stakes somehow seemed much higher in Wag the Dog, when the embattled production was a total falsification of world events instead of a Hollywood studio production that, frankly, looks as dispensable as this one winds up feeling. For the most part, the risk of failure in this movie never seems very potent. So what if The Old Mill flops, or folds, or sacrifices its integrity? Did it ever have any? The large cast, including Charles Durning as the dithery town mayor, Alec Baldwin as the lothario headliner, Sarah Jessica Parker as the flaky ingenue (does she play any other kind?), and David Paymer as the hawkish L.A. mogul, all seem to be having a grand time, but why shouldn’t they be? They’re all on cinematic spring break. No one has to think, they’re all just supposed to enjoy themselves enough that the rest of us, who still have real jobs, can feel their mirth vicariously.

Somehow managing to rise above the material’s limits—and, really, doesn’t he always?—is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has transformed himself yet again. This time he is a Barton Fink-ish Broadway talent determined not to dilute his ideas for the screen; he’s just unsure what his ideas here. In this department, he gets an assist from Rebecca Pidgeon’s Ann, a local bookstore owner in the Vermont town that has been overtaken by the Old Mill production. The two characters’ romance, as light as meringue, is nevertheless a piquant joy in a film defined, mostly, by modesty. Or perhaps I’m just a sucker for any screen couple that look as everyday as Hoffman and Pidgeon and are still treated as a lovable, charming, and libidinous match. Hoffman in this picture isn’t just sexier than the predictably loutish Alec Baldwin character; he actually comes across as sexier than Alec Baldwin. Way to go, Phil—we’re a long way from Happiness!

Thank goodness Hoffman and Pidgeon are around to stoke the low flames of good will, since good will is essentially what the film has to offer us. But even the resolution of a major obstacle in their courtship, which initially seems like the picture’s first truly interesting turn, gets ground into pap just like anything else. The only memorable nastiness in State and Main, and the best Mametian verbal coup, is this memorable line from Macy’s director, a character not far from Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man: “Who designed these costumes? They look like Edith head puked and that puke designed these costumes!” I'll forgive a lot for a line like that, and of course there’s nothing wrong with a film that isn’t nasty. For that matter, there’s nothing really wrong with State and Main—except that it’s a film whose highest aim is precisely to have nothing really wrong with it. Indictments of mediocrity register only so well when you don’t have anything better to offer in its place.. Grade: C+

National Board of Review: Best Ensemble Cast

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