State and Main Review
David Mamet is one of the most respected writers in Hollywood and, along with Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men) and William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride), one of the best. Actors hold him in an almost God-like esteem and, to be honest, they are not entirely wrong to do so. Most scripts to emerge from Hollywood have the same trite dialogue, corny one-liners and plot exposition speeches. So much so, that very rarely is it possible to distinguish one scriptwriter from another.
But Mamet is different. His dialogue is instantly recognisable. Characters rarely finish sentences. Lines end with … indicating that the other character is to start his line immediately or before the first line is finished. Add to that his ability to write the perfect expletive. Allow me to explain. Mamet knows exactly what swear words to say at the right time. Witness Hannibal, when Ray Liotta and Gary Oldman speak on the phone. When the conversation is over Oldman spits “c*cksucker”. Perfect. B*stard, Motherf*cker, A*shole, none have the same effect. Many other examples of this can be found in the expletive-filled Glengarry Glen Ross. He also writes fantastic arguments with great dynamic and very funny one-liners. But despite this similarity, his scripts are never samey. The Untouchables and State and Main are as far apart Wag the Dog and The Winslow Boy.
In saying this I am not a huge Mamet fan. I respect him immensely and enjoy his work but I find that he sometimes lays it on a bit too thick. Every story has a moral but Mamet frequently tries too hard. Witness his play Edmund (written as a film script but performed as a play) which drives his point home so much that the play quickly becomes boring. And for all its great dialogue, Glengarry Glen Ross falls into a similar trap (although, admittedly, not to the same extent). State and Main is victim to this too but thankfully, it is kept to a minimum while Mamet concentrates on the comedy.
The plot involves a Hollywood crew descending on the sleepy town of Waterford, Vermont. Their mission: to make a film that has already spent its budget. The problems: a leading man with paedophilic tendencies, a shy leading lady, a writer without a typewriter, the absence of an old mill and the interference/over-enthusiasm of the locals. To say anymore would be to detract from the enjoyment of the film. It is definitely best to go in ‘cold’. When I first saw this at the cinema I didn’t even know the above. Brigdet Jones’ Diary was sold out and I went to see this a week earlier than I had expected to.
The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. Alec Baldwin is not the most reliable of actors but he always delivers when working from a Mamet script (witness Glengarry Glen Ross, The Edge). This is no exception. Likewise, Sarah Jessica Parker exerts herself well. The same can be said for David Paymer (wonderfully sleazy as the movie’s producer) and What Lies Beneath writer Clark Gregg (the aspiring politician opposed to the film crew). Rebecca Pidgeon takes a fairly large role (no surprise perhaps, as she is Mamet’s wife) and carries it well. I have read numerous threads on various forums about how bad an actress she is, about how she has no sense of delivery. The truth is I thought she was perfectly suited to the role of the good-natured intellectual and romantic foil to the movie’s writer.
Which leaves us with two standout performances: Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy. Neither is stranger to lower budget, character driven pieces and here they play roles completely against type. Hoffman, normally the loner (Boogie Nights) or the sleaze (Montana), here plays the romantic lead. And he is surprisingly effective. He plays sensitive very well and, as mentioned above, has a great female lead to play off in Pidgeon. Finally we have Macy. More suited to losers (Fargo, Magnolia, here he is cast as the sharp-tongued director for whom nothing seems to be going right. For me, Macy was the best thing about this film - caustic, sarcastic and manipulative, he is a joy to watch.
As you might expect, the script is first class. Frequently witty, regularly laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely touching, with Mamet’s preaching (this time the moral is getting a second chance) less intrusive than usual. The direction has been criticised as plain and boring but, to be fair to Mamet, it suits the film perfectly. It is very laid back and is far from innovative but then so is Waterford and most of its inhabitants. Mamet does frame the film well though and makes good use of widescreen.
The two things that bring the film down ever so slightly are the opening credits and the whiteboard. The credits, while good in themselves, are totally out of style with the film and leave you expecting something much more aggressive and fast paced. The whiteboard is more problematic. Without spoiling the film, it plays a part in the plot (not to hard to guess once you see it) but the continuity with it is so appalling as to really annoy every time you see it. Part of me thinks this was a deliberate move on Mamet’s part as it is hard to believe that someone as anally-retentive as he could allow such glaring errors. Nevertheless, the film loses a mark.
New Line have released State and Main as a standard disc, not as a part of their prestigious Platinum Collection, but nevertheless have done a good job. The film is presented in both 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and Pan & Scan. Both are on the same side of the disc and you simply select which version you want to watch.
The widescreen version is very sharp. The colours are excellent with deep saturation and the black levels in the few dark scenes are very good. Fleshtones are natural and well balanced. There are no scratches and no noticeable grain or artifacting. The Pan & Scan version is just as good (if you can ever say that about Pan & Scan). Aside from losing chunks of picture, the quality of what is left is excellent.
Mamet’s films are generally not going to test your sound system and State and Main is no exception. Dialogue driven, the surrounds are used sparingly and to enhance the score or for the infrequent surround effects such as the torrential rain in chapter 11. More importantly, the dialogue is clear and balanced. There is little difference between the 5.1 Surround mix and the Stereo Surround mix.
Extra wise, State and Main is not exactly overflowing. We have a trailer and Cast & Crew filmographies and a commentary with William H. Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, Clark Gregg, David Paymer and Patti LuPone (although why she is present, when she has less than 5 minutes screen time, I don’t know). The five were recorded separately and then edited together. With the exception of Paymer, the beginning of each commentary coincides with that actors introduction on screen. Parker is by far the least engaging as she spends her time either sycophantically praising Mamet or Baldwin or discussing her character in great detail. Gregg isn’t much better. Much of what he says is banal but he does occasionally say something worth listening to. LuPone is a long-time friend to Mamet and what little time she has is spent either praising him or telling us how they are all one big happy family. Paymer, however, is good fun – informative and funny. But, like the actual film, Macy is the best thing about the commentary (with Paymer running a close second). Macy has known Mamet a long time and it shows. He is funny (he lists his talents as an actor as ‘telephone talking’ and playing drunk) and doesn’t fall into the trap of discussing his character in depth. It is interesting to hear that the real-life Alec Baldwin is not unlike his movie-star character Bob Berringer. In tends to drag in a lot of places (despite the presence of Macy and Paymer) but in saying that, when it gets going, it is very enjoyable (the baseball discussion). All in all, worth a listen. Once.
There is also DVD-Rom content for those with access to it. I don’t, but apparently it is very good. There is the completely original website including The Old Mill website. The latter is a fictional site for the movie being made in the film and features interviews and biographies for the various ‘stars’. Also present is a script-to-screen comparison feature that is fairly self-explanatory.
The menus are quite possibly the worst I have ever come across. Static, silent and plain. Horrible, horrible. There are 17 chapter stops; less than I would have liked as there are so many short yet hilarious scenes that now have to be fast-forwarded to.
Despite its critical acclaim, fantastic script and wonderful ensemble cast, State and Main did not set the box office alight. Which is unfortunate given the sheer enjoyment to be gained from it. New Line has delivered a gem of a film on a good disc that should be experienced by all.
P.S. - Keep watching until the very end