In State and Main, David Mamet’s delectably caustic comedy about the making of a big Hollywood movie in a small New England town, William H. Macy creates something ticklish and paradoxical: a hero of dishonor. Macy’s Walt Price — a celebrated film director who leads an army of actors, gofers, technicians, and financiers into the ridiculously quaint and picturesque Vermont mill town of Waterford — sports a wormy mustache and wields a cell phone so relentlessly it might be his fifth limb. Walt will say anything to get what he wants, but his every shameless utterance is redeemed by the sheer breadth of its cynical daring; even his grandest whoppers are showbiz in action.
He whipsaws back and forth between a kind of scary, hilarious drop dead bluntness (”Who designed these costumes? It looks like Edith Head puked and that puke designed these costumes!”) and an antic willingness to deceive and manipulate and prey on people’s delusions that would be sick and twisted to behold if it weren’t so damned… clever.
Walt, you see, has a lot on his mind. He’s got to secure a permit from the mayor (Charles Durning) that will allow him to shoot on Main Street; to convince his leading lady (Sarah Jessica Parker) to honor her $3 million contract by baring her breasts on camera; to rein in the libido of his superstar lead actor (Alec Baldwin), whose enthusiastic predilection for underage girls (”Everybody needs a hobby”) has already gotten the production chased out of New Hampshire; and to coerce his oozing with integrity screenwriter, an idealistic playwright named Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to rejigger the movie by incorporating the unfortunate logistical fact that the old mill that they have come to Waterford to film doesn’t even exist, having burned down in 1960. (The title of the movie: ”The Old Mill.”)
”State and Main” has the hermetic, vacuum packed atmosphere of all the films that David Mamet has directed, yet cleverness, heightened to a pitch of acid tongued amorality, is both its flavor and its meaning. Mamet has crafted a screwball ”Day for Night” for the infotainment age. The movie is a glorification of the art of lying, Hollywood style. It celebrates a spirit of high concept inauthenticity in which people are never more honest than when they’re twisting themselves in knots to be disingenuously ”sincere.”
These Left Coast players may be shallow bastards, but, as ”State and Main” reveals, no one in the 21st century is an entertainment innocent. Even the geezers at the coffee shop know the ins and outs of the box office grosses. The actress who tries to salvage her honor by keeping her top on — unless, of course, she’s paid that extra 800 grand — is really no different from the screenwriter who can say of his movie, ”It’s about purity.” Both have their integrity crosswired with vanity.
After a while, David Paymer, in full the rat that roared glory, shows up as the producer, Marty Rossen, a proudly mannerless moneybags shark who’s like Rodney Dangerfield playing Don Simpson (”Her last two pictures lay there on screen like my first wife!”). Marty stares at the residents of Waterford as if they were aliens, but only because he’s incapable of processing a thought that isn’t ruled by self interest.
Mamet, as ”Wag the Dog” proved, is a terrifically funny writer when he lets his hair down, but as a director he’s still too beholden to his precious scripts. Witty as it is, the dialogue in ”State and Main” is like a blueprint that dominates the architecture around it. When Baldwin’s Method letch crashes his car into a stoplight at the intersection of State and Main, and a local high school girl (Julia Stiles) crawls out of the wreckage along with him, Hoffman’s fumbly, tenderfoot scribe, who has witnessed the incident, faces a choice.
Will he lie to protect the production? Or will he live up to his nobler instincts, reflected in his romance with a beamy eyed Waterford bookstore owner (Rebecca Pidgeon) who represents, well, purity? The situation is rigged too transparently in order to carry the movie’s themes, though Mamet, to his credit, doesn’t go soft. He ends the picture on a happy zinger, wickedly demonstrating that the show — the lie — must go on.