Playwright David Mamet, very much lauded for his sharp dialogue, ventures into Hollywood every so often to write and to direct feature films. Even Mr. Theatre himself cannot avoid the lure of Tinseltown.
I'm sure that he drew upon his experiences when writing his script for "State and Main," an ensemble film about a film production that invades the small town of Waterford, Vermont. The makers of "The Old Mill" set up shop in Waterford because they were driven out of another small town that did not want to put up with the antics of crazy Hollywood types. Director Walt Price (a very funny William H. Macy) has his hands full trying to put the pieces together. His leading man, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), is a pedophile who gets in trouble with the local under-age girl, Carla (Julia Stiles). The leading lady, Claire (Jessica Parker), doesn't want to bare her breasts for the film even though audiences "can draw her breasts from memory." A local politician wants to sue everybody in sight in order to advance his career. Meanwhile, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the writer of "The Old Mill," has to re-write the script and find a new title because Waterford doesn't have a mill anymore--it burned down in 1960 during a string of arson crimes.
Within a matter of days, the townspeople audition for roles in the movie rather than for a local theatrical production. People at the diner start reading "Variety," Hollywood's leading industry rag. The politician suing the filmmakers wants a cut of the film's grosses to keep him quiet. Everyone seems to be transformed by the filmmakers' presence in town. However, the screenwriter strikes up a relationship with the town's bookshop owner, Ann (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's real-life wife). Ann helps Joe find the inspiration to write new pages for the script, and in the process, Joe begins to realize why he wrote the story in the first place.
How does the film play? Well, I admit that I learned alot about how a production is put together, but Mamet doesn't focus in on enough key points/issues to play like a well-made mockumentary. Although the film won the "Best Ensemble" award from the National Board of Review, I was not impressed by this approach to the story. The film feels thinly spread at times, and there isn't a consistent tone to be found during "State and Main's" brief running time (slightly over 100 minutes). There's so much going on that the movie begins to feel too frantic during its second half.
There are a lot of in-jokes and out-and-out jokes about Hollywood. My favorite one has to do with the lack of respect that producers get in Hollywood, especially when anyone and his masseuse or even pet can get a producer credit. However, a lot of these jokes get rather repetitive and unfunny. In response to comments made about his pedophilic tendencies, Alec Baldwin's character says, "Everybody needs a hobby." Later, Jessica Parker's character says to Baldwin's "You treat me like a child...that's why I can't come." I don't know if I should praise Mamet for being brutally honest or for writing dialogue that is uncharacteristically hard on the ears.
The funny thing about the last few DVDs that I've watched is that big budget extravaganzas tend to look more problematic than films that do not depend on special visual effects. "State and Main" looks oh-so sharp and clean, as good as Paramount's recent "Sunshine." The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (incorrectly labeled as 2.35:1 on the DVD box) print is clean and mistake-free, period. I found the picture to be really pleasant to look at.
As is standard New Line practice, the "State and Main" DVD comes with both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DD 2.0 surround track. Not surprisingly, both tracks sound pretty similar (with the 5.1 being a tad louder than the 2.0). The dialogue dominates the sound stage of this small-scale comedy, and background music filters from the left and right front speakers. As you can imagine, little comes out of the rear surround channels (the only time they seem to be active is during a car accident). Only English subtitles are available.
As "State and Main" appeared mainly on the art house circuit, it will not surprise anyone to find out that this film wasn't a box office hit. Therefore, the DVD edition of the movie doesn't feature much in the way of extras. There is an audio commentary featuring Sarah Jessica Parker, William H. Macy, Clark Gregg, David Paymer, and Patti LuPone. It sounds like each person was recorded separately, and then an engineer edited their remarks into one track. While I flipped to the commentary track a few times, nothing really kept me glued to it. There are also some text pages about members of the cast and David Mamet, and there is a theatrical trailer.
If you have access to a DVD-ROM drive, you can look at the film's website as well as the "script-to-screen" feature (read the script while the film plays in a small window).
Being an ensemble film, "State and Main" doesn't showcase enough moments between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rebecca Pidgeon. After all, their two characters are the most "literate" ones, the only two with "something to say." Instead, our attention is diverted to so much in so little time that the movie hardly feels like a cohesive whole. Most people will be mildly amused by "State and Main," but only those who really keep up with how Hollywood works (i.e. industry insiders, people who watch more than ten movies a month, film journalists, etc.) will get a kick out of the film's many in-jokes. Heck, the whole film is an in-joke. But that's David Mamet's point, I guess.