The Good: Funny, Decent characters, Good acting
The Bad: Hits some of the jokes a few too many times.
The Basics: Funny throughout, State And Main tells the story of a beleaguered movie company trying to make a film, with a movie-in-a-movie comedy.
Every now and then, I find myself watching a movie I am convinced I saw, but never got around to reviewing. Before I recently watched State And Main with my fiance and family, for example, I was sure I had seen it. I knew what it was about, after all. However, less than five minutes into the movie, I knew I never had seen it; I would have remembered it. Written and directed by David Mamet, whose Glengarry Glen Ross (reviewed here!) I recall enjoying, State And Main is an understated comedy that I found myself laughing at far too many times to be seeing it the second (or third) time.
That said, I do believe that as people discover State And Main now on DVD or digital download, they will find a gem that was overlooked at the time of its release. Filled with witty dialogue, deadpan deliveries and quick double-takes, State And Main utilizes its extensive cast perfectly and offers those who like smart comedy something worth laughing out loud at. Indeed, despite the repetition of some jokes, this film about an independent film crew descending upon a small town is fairly consistent in the laughs and it utilizes a number of well-known performers in ways they are not frequently used.
Walt Price is the executive producer and director of a film called "The Old Mill" which has had to move abruptly due to one of the star's indiscretions. A location scout has brought Walt to Waterford, Vermont, where all seems perfect to shoot the movie. Unfortunately, as the cast moves into the small town, Walt's production is beset with problems, not the least of which include that the old mill in Waterford burned down decades prior and his leading lady will not fulfill her contract and bare her breasts for the film. So, Walt calls upon the writer, a legendary playwright named Joseph Turner White to rewrite his screenplay without the presence of the old mill.
As White bonds with the local intellectual, a woman who is trying to organize the town for an upcoming dramatic production, Ann's fiancee, Doug feels slighted and turns upon the film crew looking for some way to make money off them and draw attention to his greatness as a D.A. to launch his political career. Doug gets his wish sooner than he thought when the star of Walt's movie, international movie star Bob Barrenger's predilections for girls (not young women, mind you) gets him in an accident with local high school student Carla. Walt works desperately to keep the production afloat amid all of the chaos while White works on a rewrite that finds him wrestling with what the movie is truly about.
State And Main often has a dryly delivered, often absurd sense of humor. Almost immediately, the tone of the film is established by Walt, talking on the phone, delivering the line "Waterford, Vermont. Where is it? THAT'S where it is." The movie tends to fall along that line of humor throughout, with various people asking the question, "Do we have to have The Old Mill?" at various points as well. Despite the dry deliveries of almost every line of jokes, State And Main is often hilarious, with a sense of wit that will make most audiences do more than just smile.
Unlike many comedies, State And Main actually takes the time to develop themes and it manages to make jokes recur, though a few of them do get tired by the end. Joseph Turner White's character, though, is intriguing in that he works on creating a film that has meaning and explores the vain quest to reclaim purity while his part in this film satisfies the same need and theme. Of course, this is all by clever design, but Mamet is a careful enough writer and director to entertain and make the viewer feel like everything is occurring organically, as opposed to a script.
Part of the way he does this is by developing very vivid characters. Walt is much more than just a dry-line delivering director who is witty for laughs from the audience. He is single-mindedly devoted to creating a movie and while people like his producer, Marty, seem to be motivated solely by money, Walt actually seems devoted to the project because he believes it is legitimately great. Of course, virtually everything he says is a lie meant to get people to do his bidding, but all of his lying seems to be for the purpose of making a great movie.
Similarly, White - with his obviously symbolic name - is both a symbol of purity and a man who one can actually see is a writer daunted by the greatness of his first production. His relationship with Ann occurs organically and when he ends up in a compromised position with the film's star, Claire, Mamet does something wonderfully unexpected; he treats the situation as an adult situation. White explains to Ann what happened, as absurd as it might appear and Ann believes him because she has no reason not to. In other words, Mamet and State And Main do not play along the predictable, obvious lines of conflict for a comedy or a drama and instead offer the viewer characters who are thinking adults who are able to discriminate and judge based on their experiences.
This is not to say all of the characters are masterfully fleshed out. Claire is a strangely pious Hollywood starlet whose conflict with Walt seems to come out of nowhere. And Bob Barrenger is a one-joke guy. He is an egomaniac, product of his own stardom, and he likes teenage girls. Virtually every joke surrounding him involves his predilection for teenagers, so when Carla eagerly makes advances on him, it is predictable, but reasonable that he would fall for her. And Walt's handling of the situation is hilarious.
It is worth noting - because so much of the humor is cerebral - that State And Main is one of the first films I can recall (by date) that rewards viewers for sticking around through the opening credits. While there are no additional scenes at the end of the credits, there are a few additional jokes near the bottom of the crawl which play perfectly off jokes delivered in the actual film. It is worth hanging around for them.
Part of what makes the characters so vivid is that they are performed by a truly amazing collection of actors. Clark Gregg, Rebecca Pidgeon, Vincent Guastaferro, Sarah Jessica Parker and David Paymer give some of their funniest performances of their lives as quirky residents of Waterford or people involved in Walt's picture. Alec Baldwin sets up his 30 Rock style comedy as Barrenger and reminds viewers that he has a sense of comic timing, even if it was neglected or poorly used for several years in his films. Even Julia Stiles is surprisingly good as the jailbait Carla, offering more than just her smile and eyes to characterize the girl.
But it is Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy who do the heavy lifting on the acting front in State And Main. Hoffman is given a great deal of dramatic work as the quiet and daunted Joseph Turner White. He is credible as he appears serious and shy in every scene he is in. But instead of just recapturing prior shy roles of his (like his character in Boogie Nights), Hoffman infuses an intelligence into White and one gets the sense White is always looking at things. He is constantly looking into people, even just with a glance, and that seems to be an acting choice on Hoffman's part.
William H. Macy has incredible abilities as an actor to play dramatic roles. In State And Main, though, he uses Hoffman and virtually everyone else as his straightman. He is charged with keeping the comedy coming and he expertly times each joke he shoots out while making every one of them seem like real dialogue coming from an actualized - if entirely absorbed - character. This is one of the performances that helps define Macy's range and ought to reassure any director checking out the field that Macy can do an amazing job with comedy.
Anyone looking for a fast-talking comedy that uses dry and subtle wit to generate real laughs will find much to love about State And Main.
For other works with Clark Gregg, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Iron Man 2
The West Wing
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page by clicking here!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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