Published December 1, 2000
David Mamet’s State and Main is so slow moving, so sluggishly edited, that you’ve got to wonder if it is so through incompetence — though this might be OK for other kinds of films, it’s disastrous in a comedy — or if there is some subtle purpose to it: an attempt to assert, for example, that the quirky, Mametian jokes are really the whole point of this send up of Hollywood movie-making. The movies themselves are made to look ridiculous because they are so uncongenial to Mr Mamet’s peculiar talents. Where jokes in the movies ideally come with a machine-gun’s patter, Mamet wields a flintlock, which has to be carefully primed and loaded before each firing.
They also have a strange, surreal quality that is sometimes distracting and sometimes annoying. Thus when the film’s director, played by William H. Macy, asks what is required to keep his piggish, prima donna of a star, Bob Berringer (Alec Baldwin) happy and is told, ominously, that the answer is “14-year-old girls,” he pauses for only a moment before replying: “Get him something else. Get him half a 28-year-old girl.” It’s a form of intellectual humor that seems to me particularly ill-suited to the movies, where half a 28-year-old girl is not a visual possibility. The line might work as a throwaway, but in this deliberate, plodding movie nothing is thrown away.
It would have been a much better picture if quite a lot of things had been thrown away, starting with the main character, a young screenwriter called Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose sensitive, old-fashioned coming-of-age drama and “quest for purity” called The Old Mill, is being made into a movie on location in New England. Mr Hoffman is a very talented actor, but here he looks as if he is on drugs, lumbering through each scene with a frozen grin on his face as if he wasn’t quite sure where he was supposed to be next. He is too obviously Mamet’s alter ego, a Movieland Candide continually bemused (though not bemused enough) by the absurdities of the business he finds himself in, and his love-interest, local girl Annie, is Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pigeon.
In the clash between the brittle, corrupt, phony world of the movie people and the solid, real-life virtues of small-town New England a movie like this has its natural raison d’etre, but Mamet, creatively ambitious as ever, wants to try something different. Not for him the cliché of solid, heartland virtues triumphing over metropolitan sophisticates. Here the locals — including a star-struck mayor played by Charles Durning, a willing teenage victim of the egregious Berringer, played by Julia Stiles, and a shyster lawyer played by Clark Gregg — tend to be as morally unattractive as their West coast visitors. Only the charming Annie, a local intellectual who runs a bookstore and directs amateur theatricals, and her grinning swain the screenwriter are left to carry the moral burden of the piece.
“Ah, love, let us be true to one another. . .,” as Matthew Arnold put it on the darkling plain of “Dover Beach.” But while the ignorant armies continue to clash by night, we haven’t much of a sense of the personalities of our bobo Adam and Eve. Just why is it that these two alone have been rescued from the moral pile-up in which they are unwillingly involved? Even where the farcical context seems to provide opportunities for our heroes to charm us with ridiculousness, Mamet resolutely refuses them. At one point, Annie catches Turner alone in his hotel room with a naked woman, the movie-inside-the-movie’s nymphomaniac star, Claire (Sarah Jessica Parker). Of course he tells her that it’s not what it seems. As of course it is not. But the comedy of the situation crucially depends on Annie’s natural assumption that it is exactly what it seems. But Annie accepts the stammered explanation and goes away without a twinge of jealousy. Just what was the point of that?
Even some of the jokes which, however slow-moving, are supposed to be Mamet’s forte, are rather tired. For example, the father of Julia Stiles’s nymphet — and, by the way, Miss Stiles is obviously far too intelligent an actress to be playing this brainless groupie — is a reds-under-the-beds type: an apparent right-wing nut who has driven his daughter to her sexual “acting out.” Once, when he is in mid-rant, someone points out to him that Communism is over. “That’s what they said about Warner Bros, circa 1985,” he replies, “and look at their share price today.” It is yet another reminder of the interpenetration of the entertainment culture and what still passes here and there for “real life.” This may be a true observation, but it is hard to see what is entertaining about it.