TORONTO 2000 REVIEW: Mamet Misfires on Corner of "State and Main"
by Ray Pride
(indieWIRE/ 9.11.00) -- Mamet's curdled pageant depicting a movie company's settling into a New England hamlet and finding (gasp) Greed! Narcissism! Pretension! and teenage hotties anxious to be boned by a movie star played by Alec Baldwin is a tad past its sell-by date. Many, many years ago another version of this script had circulated, with the collaboration of Miss Elaine May. More banter, more off-handed verbal brilliance of the sort that she excels at is what's lacking in this thoroughly serviceable, thoroughly flat would-be romp. Mamet swats at flies; May's approach is to send sand-fleas and chiggers into the body of a picture that bite and irritate at moments that bespeak both mirth and madness. "State and Main" instead becomes a want-to-be screwball romance about the cost of false witness.
The glowing light at the center of "State and Main" is not the callow female star Claire Wellesley (Jessica Parker), but instead Ann Black, the earnest owner of the local bookstore, also a director of amateur theatricals, played by Mrs. Mamet, Rebecca Pidgeon. I want to love someone someday the way David Mamet loves Rebecca Pidgeon. I want someone who glows just so under my admiring gaze. She is radiant yet ordinary and specific. She rewards the camera each time it glimpses her, with brimful, wide unflinching eyes, delivering wonderfully too-knowing lines like "Everyone makes their own fun, if you don't, it's entertainment." And there are modest gestures reserved for her amid the satiric clangor, such as stilling a porch swing with a finger before going inside her modest house.
Otherwise, the cynicism grows as high as an elephant's eye. A roaming company set to shoot a script called "The Old Mill" finds themselves in the hot water once more as Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) indulges his "hobby" with teenage waitress Julia Stiles. Walt Price, William H. Macy's darling, practiced, unctuous bullshitter of a director ("It's not a lie, it's a gift for fiction, off you go") cannot do much but wait for the intercession of producer Marty Rossen, played by David Paymer ("Don't flinch when I speak to you, you speed-trap shaygetz!"). Meanwhile, more pages are asked of screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and only with the common sense of Ann Black on his side can he be saved from the morass that is the libidinal, self-venerating disarray of movie sets, filled with misprisions against self-value, and naturally, the essential roster of sport-fucking.
Theodore Shapiro's music is typical of the film's character. Without the savvy sass that a composer like Carter Burwell brought to "The Spanish Prisoner," Mamet's japes and taunts seem more self-important than searing. Have we not been here before? Why is an artist as gifted and prolix as Mamet toying at such modest games?
I prefer the bellicose Mamet, the one who writes essays like "L.A. Homes," from his recent collection, Jafsie and John Henry: "What are these savages doing in these lovely homes? I wonder. For the homes are actually lovely." The words come: "These folks, who greenlit or greenlighted blah blah blah part Eye Vee, should display the proverbial moose-on-satin with the eyes which follow one about. These people should, by rights, have the bullfight poster with one's name upon it hanging in the john INSTEAD OF WHICH we find the pure, unscented handmade soap from some off-brand country lying, pristine, in the small, green Hampshire soap dish."
The rhetoric seethes, the contempt is exultation itself: "Now, friends,
let me tell you what I mean. How dare these anti-literate traffic-cops at the
roadside crash which is our culture, how dare they dare to have anything
around them which is lovely?"
That is the Mamet we have heard so much about. Has he grown soft around
the Morals? Has he accepted Hollywood cant as Truth? Hardly; this is still
one excoriating piece of comedy. Yet the fire seems forced and the territory
familiar, better left to lesser hands. Piss and vinegar are always to be
preferred over jokes about the selfishness of film folks and the fine breasts of young, underserviced actresses. How dare Mamet dare to misfire?
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to Filmmaker and longtime film editor for Chicago's Newcity. He writes about movies for Brittanica.com, TNT's Roughcut.com and the BBC World Service, among others.]