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David Mamet's State and Main


State and Main

Mamet, David. Screenplay by David Mamet. Film Line, 2000. [purchase]

State and Main is the story of what happens when a Hollywood film crew sets up camp in a small Vermont town. The crew, which is filming a movie named "The Old Mill," had just been kicked out of a town in New Hampshire for reasons left unmentioned in the film (but, which are heavily implied) and have chosen this location in Vermont due to the low cost of filming there. Their problems begin when they find that their titular old mill burned down in 1960, and they escalate from there -- for both the filming crew and the members of the community.

David Mamet is one of the greatest playwrights of our time. His snappy, realistic dialogue combined with a constant sense of urgency he instills in his characters can make even the most mundane of situations seem exciting and tense. His screenplays, however, are not nearly as consistent as his plays; just see The Edge (1997) (or as I call it "Jaws II in the woods") for an example of Mamet at his worst. State and Main, fortunately, is one of his best.

Mamet's writing is nowhere near as intense and coarse as usual in State and Main. The subject matter is light, though definitely not trivial, and the word "fuck" is spread very thinly throughout the dialogue. But, despite his lighter touch on the tone of the script, his handling of theme is as heavy as always, proving that he doesn't need to be serious and heavy-handed in order to get his point across. And, even that thematic point is lighter than usual for Mamet: Instead of delving into the darker side of human nature, he looks at the ability to rise above one's darker nature and act on the transcendental pureness which lies inside each of us.

State and Main is really just a stage play filmed on a big screen, and the directing choices made by Mamet affirm this. He does a fine job of making sure attention is directed where it should be, and in most cases gets the needed emphasis and subtext from his actors. And, really, that is what this movie is all about. You won't see any visual spectacles or feel any shocks or surprises in State and Main. This is a movie that is all about the dialogue, and every choice Mamet makes brings his words to the forefront. Any spectacle would probably have been more of a distraction than a benefit.

With a rather large ensemble cast, the performances in the film generally reflect this. Some, particularly those of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Rebecca Pidgeon, are fantastic, while others are merely adequate. One casting choice of Mamet's, though, which I feel I must point out, is the decision to give a couple of parts to two of his poker buddies in the film. He casts these two men as town locals, and regulars at the town's restaurant. These two men are most certainly not actors, and talking about their "performances" is an exercise in futility, since they don't give one. Now, in a way, seeing a couple old men deliver very stilted and monotonic lines is funny, but overall it is distracting, breaking the suspension of disbelief and confirming that they are on screen that the audience is just watching a movie after all. Aside from this one complaint, though, the remaining performances are at worst good, and at best wonderful. Even Alec Baldwin delivers a very good performance, though I guess this is to be expected since he is a Mamet regular, and as always, William H. Macy delivers his solid work.

While this movie is lighter than most Mamet films, do not mistake that to mean that it is fluff. In fact, Mamet shows in this film that he is able to explore the kinder side of human nature just as well as he is able to delve into our darker sides. This is neither a "chick flick" nor a date film, but the audiences who like these sorts of films will probably enjoy it. But, it will also be very much enjoyed by intellectuals who are more concerned about wit and theme than flash. The only people who probably would not enjoy this film are those hardcore action fanatics who enjoy Jean-Claude Van Damme and Stephen Segal films, and I'd ask even those people to give this film a chance -- you just may connect with something in this film. At the very least you'll get to see a nifty car crash...

Shaun Ferguson