The Hollywood satire is a tricky subgenre: movies of the category sometimes come across as a bad case of biting the hand that feeds the director. It takes a ruthless visionary, then, to deliver results humorous enough to keep executives happy and vicious enough to convince audiences that the foulness is the real deal. The finest, Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), was a star-studded event that made Hollywood seem like a place for wolves rather than cheery hopefuls.
David Mamet’s State and Main (2000), acidic and witty until egos come crashing down, breaks into the top five while remaining much more lightweight than the former. It’s satisfying and breezy, so much so that it’s easy to forget just how exquisitely smart Mamet’s writing is.
State and Main follows a film crew to Waterford, Virginia, where Walter Price’s (William H. Macy) latest project, The Old Mill, is heading into production. Equipped with several of the 19th-century props needed for the movie, it seems like the perfect location. But when it’s discovered that the most pivotal attraction, The Old Mill itself, burned down years ago, it sets off a series of disastrous events that could lead the production into cinematic hell. Star Bob Barrenger's (Alec Baldwin) weakness for teenage girls comes to a head when he begins having an affair with the daughter (Julia Stiles) of the local restauranteur (Ricky Jay), who decides to press charges. Temperamental female lead Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) refuses to take her top off for a pivotal romantic scene; screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a sensitive introvert, is having trouble with needed rewrites. All this occurs before filming even begins, and a cursed pre-production is no way to marinate a major Hollywood drama.
Because most of Mamet’s films focus on the intellectual bottom-feeders of society, State and Main feels like an anomaly, an unusual reminder that someone so obsessed with crafty shadow dwellers is capable of having a softer side that would prefer to pass the time with comedy than with cons. I might like him better when he’s cackling along with the antics of Joe Montegna and Lindsay Crouse in 1987’s House of Games, but that doesn’t mean that seeing him having a good time isn’t a delicacy. Able to juggle a truckload of characters like a people obsessed puppet-master, Mamet has a natural gift for comedy, perfectly aware that insecurities among celebrities and money quests among productional heads are just as funny as sitcom-ready misunderstandings. His famed Mamet speak (a silky assortment of italics and quaint pauses in his characters’ linguistics) is as conspicuous as ever; it suits State and Main’s acerbic screwball madness.
In all, it feels more like a pastime than a comedic masterpiece from one of films greatest screenwriters, but State and Main is a winner all the same: lived in by a well-cast ensemble and deepened by worthy subplots (the low-key romance between Hoffman and Rebecca Pidgeon is my personal favorite), it is a Hollywood satire of rare enthusiasm. It would make for a great stage play. Movie execs might be happier that way anyway. B+