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State and Main

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: State and Main

Starring: Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy
Director: David Mamet
Rated: R
RunTime: 106 Minutes
Release Date: January 2001
Genre: Comedy

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When writers satirize people and institutions, they do not necessarily despise what they are sending up. Though Ben Jonson took serious jabs at humanity in "Volpone" calling human beings jackals and worse, some parodists can barely hide their affection for their targets. Take David Mamet for example. In 1989 he had his "Speed-the-Plow" staged on Broadway starring Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver and Madonna in what looked like a devasting skewer of Hollywood, but the hilarity of the script gave away his fondness for things L.A. In "State and Main," a milder sendup of the movie business, Mamet mellows in Preston Sturges territory, lampooning politics, the advertising business, sex and hero-worship--particularly the ways that the movie industry manipulates the objects of his barely hidden affection.

Preston Sturges's "The Great McGinty" and "Sullivan's Travels" which propelled that writer-director into a meteoric, if brief, success, might be the very films that inspired Mamet this time around. "The Great McGinty," released in 1940, deals with a bum who is manipulated into the governor's chair by a crooked political machine but who blows it all when he decides to become honest. "Sullivan's Travels," released a year later, deals with a "fluff" director who decides to do a serious film by researching the subject in the real world.

In "State and Main" by comparison, Walt Price (played by Mamet regular William H. Macy), is intent on directing a serious piece by photographing on location in small-town America, only to find that the company affects the residents of the sleepy village more than the burg impacts on the filmmaker. Sending up both Hollywood and hamlet, "State and Main" gains its unusually quiet and lovable humor by focussing on oddball relationships between bizarre members of his crew and idiosyncratic denizens of Waterford, Vermont (actually Manchester, Massachusetts). Handsome leading man Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) gets into hot water yet again by his penchant for 14-year-olds (in this case for Carla Taylor, played by Julia Stiles). The leading lady, Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), decides at the last moment that she will not bare her breasts despite her contractual agreement to do so. Producer Marty Rosen (David Paymer) is pitted against an avaricious politician, Doug MacKenzie (Clark Gregg). Best of all, a stuttering scripter, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) enjoys an eccentric romance with a whimsical bookstore owner, Ann (Rebecca Pidgeon).

Virtually missing this time around is David Mamet's bent for clipped speech, which he utilized to our great pleasure in "House of Games" and even more powerfully in his best work, "Glengarry Glen Ross." Also bypassed is the writer- director's typical harshness, putting "State and Main" more in line with the ambiance of Mamet's Chekhov adaptation, "Vanya on 42nd St" than with the rueful attack on political correctness, "Olenna." But the prolific 53-year-old writer's current offering is a welcome respite from his usual cynicism. When he tempts a grasping, anti-Semitic politician with a bribe, or invites an odd couple (the writer and the bookseller) to enjoy a spontaneous romance; when he displays the ways that a whole town can be amiably corrupted by the allure of celebrities; and when in a Capra-esque homage, he gives a man the choice of being honest at the risk of his career or bearing false witness with the hope of a blockbuster calling-- he allows us to explore human folly with grins and chuckles instead of knives and cudgels.

The remarkable Philip Seymour Hoffman is the show stealer, giving a nuanced impersonation of a man whose difficulty with spontaneous communication belies his genius with a typewriter. His liaison with the town's amateur theatrics director (played with lovable technique by Ms. Pidgeon) is a romance of the authentic sort we do not often get to see on the screen. The one line that draws belly laughs from the audience--a jab at the American electoral process--is so current, so precisely out of today's headlines about the Gore-Bush battles--that we could swear that Mamet had just injected that dialogue into this congenial film.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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