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— John Travolta, Face/Off

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State and Main is a movie about making a movie. Like Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night, it follows the loving, neurotic family of filmmakers in their chaotic, kinetic quest for greatness and art.

David Mamet wrote and directed this film, and it bears his unique signature of verbal banter and formalized dialogue. Like a great screwball comedy, its characters are always stepping on each others’ lines, and it has more talkers than listeners.

A Troubled Production

The film’s production company has landed in Waterford, Vermont. It seems like the perfect town for the production; it has a firehouse, a mill, and friendly locals blissfully unaware of the impact a film crew can have on a little town.

The production, like any other, is troubled. It turns out the mill can’t be used, and the firehouse has a stained-glass window where the cinematographer needs to put his camera. The starlet has arrived in town, but she’s not sure she can do the nude scene. The star, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) has a bad habit of sleeping with 14-year old girls, and as bad luck would have it, there’s one named Carla (Julia Stiles, an actress to watch) working in the hotel.

Meantime, the screenwriter’s typewriter has been lost and the assistant director is asking for time off for the birth of his child. The director, Walt Price (William H. Macy), plays mentor, boss, cheerleader, big sister, and chum, depending on who he’s talking to. By changing masks every other minute, he is somehow able to keep the production on schedule.

An Average Joe

The central figure of the film is the screenwriter Joe White (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Joe wrote a play or two, and now he’s adapted one of them into a screenplay. His gentle, timid demeanor may be suitable for writing plays about purity and second chances, but it’s a liability in this world of strong Hollywood personalities.

Amid the chaos, Joe finds solace and infatuation in the local drama coach, Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon, David Mamet’s wife). Only when Joe is with Ann does the film slow down, just a little, while the two talk about their lives or their scripts.

An Ensemble Comedy

State and Main is a delightful screwball comedy, lightweight and fast-paced. The comedy centers largely around Macy as the director. It comes from the myriad details and problems that the production must face. The mayor has to be schmoozed, the starlet has to be comforted, the writer has to be found, and the star has to be reined in. There are always multiple conversations happening at once, and just when one or two problems get solved, another two or three crop up.

State and Main works very well not only as a comedy but also as an ensemble character study. There are a dozen recognizable characters, and each has his or her own life. Joe wants his script and his soul to remain pure. Bob wants to have a good time. Ann wants to make something meaningful and true. And Walt wants to make everyone else happy so that he can make a movie.

A Happy Ending

The traditional way to end a chaotic screwball comedy is a deus ex machina ending: the chaos keeps breeding more chaos until God comes down and sets things right. In this case, the film ends when the production begins. All the troubles and pain that colored the days leading up to the production, work themselves out, not by magic, but by several well-thought-out, well-deserved compromises. Price has managed to keep the production together, and somehow, they end up making a movie of which they will all no doubt be proud.

State and Main is not as heavy as some of Mamet’s previous efforts (The Spanish Prisoner, The Winslow Boy), and maybe it’s a little more forgettable or disposable. But for the duration it’s just as enjoyable, and maybe a little more fun. Give State and Main a chance when it comes to your town.