Writer/director/playwright David Mamet is known for a lot of things. Generally, comedy is not one of them. His new send-up of Hollywood and idyllic small-town America has been heralded as the second coming of Preston Sturges. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall any of that comedic master’s films ever revolving around a statutory rape charge.
14 years ago, Alan Alda wrote, directed, and starred in a movie called “Sweet Liberty”. It was about the havoc caused when a Hollywood production descended upon a small New England town to film the adaptation of a Revolutionary War novel written by a local author, played by Alda. Mamet’s story concerns what happens when a Hollywood production descends upon a small New England town to film “The Old Mill”, the first screenplay by playwright Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This is in no way the same film. As a matter of fact, nearly all of “State and Main” takes place before a single frame of film is shot.
Of America’s preeminent living playwrights, possibly only Sam Shepard has as much experience in Hollywood. It would be easy to peg Mamet’s cinematic stand-in to be the writer, particularly as the character’s love interest is played by Mamet’s real wife, Rebecca Pidgeon. However, Mamet’s also the director of this movie, and seven others. Therefore, no matter how much of a weasel the character of the director, Walt Price (William H. Macy), may seem to be, you have to look at him as an expression of the real director’s experience as well.
“State and Main” is more typical of the author than it would seem, at first. The townspeople are never a bunch of well-meaning innocents. It’s easy to portray how the Los Angeles contingent is out to get whatever they can for as little as possible before they blow town. However, nearly every local drops everything to determine how they can get their pound of flesh from the whale that’s floated into town. The least calculating would be bookstore owner Ann Black (Pidgeon), who immediately dumps her venal fiancee, politician Doug MacKenzie (Mamet veteran Clark Gregg, not the guy from the Great White North), after she falls for writer White. Dougie spends the rest of the story attempting to milk the filmmakers for whatever he can.
Generally, this movie is quite entertaining, though it in no way finds the tone or pacing of Sturges’ work. There are a couple of issues. Strangely, Pidgeon’s role is very underwritten. As her character appears to have no real faults and able to forgive Hoffman’s White of anything, she comes off as some kind as Mamet’s idealization of Pidgeon in real life. The other thing is, loathe though I am to ever come to the defense of Hollywood, it would help the uninitiated if the L.A. contigent’s behavior was put in some sort of context. It’s mighty easy to deplore the behavior of Macy’s director and his producer, played by David Paymer. Hell, it’s easy to deplore the behavior of a lot of real filmmakers. The stories about anyone like Coppola, Friedkin, or Cameron are amazing. HOWEVER, you have to put those tales in context of occurring in a work setting. When you’re in charge of a large number of people, including some very difficult and mercurial personalities, you’ve got to make some adjustments in how you deal with them to accomplish your goals. Like I’ve said before, the director is not there to make friends, he’s there to make a movie, and sometimes that requires behavior that even he or she is not comfortable with. Having said that, “State and Main” is not always smooth or pleasant, but it’s definitely Hollywood.