I never knew David Mamet had directed so many movies. I've always known him as the Pulitzer-winning playwright doing harsh work like Glengarry Glen Ross and The Verdict, who's been nominated for Tony and Oscar awards. He acknowledges Harold Pinter as an influence, incidentally. However he's been directing a film every few years since 1987 and so far the count is ten as of Redbelt (2008). The bigger surprise though was that State and Main, being his first comedy, is entertaining and funny.
It's a movie about making a movie. I'm never the biggest fan of those. Scummy Hollywood types descend upon a sleepy small town where everyone's sweet and nice, so you're already bracing yourself for things not to be pretty. Fortunately though this one is striking a delicate tone in which the production team's amoral and sometimes criminal actions never actually seem evil. They're just... Hollywood. They're not villains. They have ruthless priorities and a business-oriented set of ethical and personal standards, that's all. Making a movie can overwhelm you with a million silly but terrifying details, but underneath that pressure these are approximately nice people. One of them is even so pure and gentle that he can tie themselves in knots over something as simple as telling a lie.
It's all about the cast, really. Mamet's written a script that snaps like a whip and is full of quotable lines, but having created all these characters he's cast some excellent actors to play them. He's also avoided pantomime choices. The director is William H. Macy, who of course is inherently lovable. If you were going for something more black-and-white, you'd have had him swap roles with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Meanwhile the fictional movie's main star, Alec Baldwin, is a funny, inoffensive paedophile. (No, really.) Even David Paymer isn't scary, despite having a face and manner like a shark and dialogue that could have made him look like a psychopath.
1. William H. Macy, winner of a ton of acting awards and Oscar-nominated for Fargo (1996). I love him here. He can be a heartless bastard, or else thoughtful and kind. He's exactly the kind of person you'd put in charge of the runaway all-destroying monster that is a Hollywood movie, but in little, subtle ways he makes you like him.
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Oscar-winner for Capote (2005) and one of Hollywood's finest chameleons. Here he's a lumpish nerd who's also a playwright and film scriptwriter. He cares about themes, purity and so on. He couldn't be mean-spirited to save his life. His relationship with Rebecca Pidgeon gives this movie its soul and the reason they had me cringing halfway through was because I'd come to care about them. He's lovely.
3. Alec Baldwin, Oscar-nominated for The Cooler (2003) but I know him best from Beetlejuice. At first glance he might seem underwhelming here. It's an apparently flat performance without much in the eyes, to such an extent that I wondered if he was on drugs. However don't forget the paedophile thing. This was the film's most dangerous role. It could have gone wrong in all kinds of ways, many of which would have killed the movie. Baldwin though plays him as a shallow, slightly infantile charmer without an ounce of malice in him, but equally not much intelligence or awareness either. He's not a monster. He also doesn't come across as a predator. Being the biggest star in the world means that he's never short of women coming on to him and if these are occasionally fourteen years old, he's not going to complain. (At least he's not leching over eight-year-olds. His proclivities would at least be legal in some countries.)
The only oddity is that when we actually see his character doing his job for the cameras, he's not very good. This is right at the end. Sarah Jessica Parker isn't either. Presumably this is deliberate, perhaps suggesting that some of the hype we'd previously been fed was indeed just hype.
4. Rebecca Pidgeon, who in real life is David Mamet's wife. She appears in several of his films, although in fairness he has several actors he likes to use and she's merely one of them. She's excellent, by the way. Charming, kind, obviously intelligent and a perfect match for Hoffman.
5. Sarah Jessica Parker, who of course isn't just Sex and the City. Other films of hers that I've seen include L.A. Story and Mars Attacks!. She's playing a silly Hollywood star, but of course "silly" is a relative term and there are ways in which she's more mature than some of her co-workers. She has a subplot about her character having to go topless, but don't expect to see anything here.
It works. I laughed. I particularly admire the deftness of its verbal foreshadowing, although visually there's one shot of a scrubbed-out message on a whiteboard that's heavy-handed. I think I was about halfway through before I stopped feeling occasionally uncomfortable and was able to enjoy it properly, but that's just me and the subject matter. The film can make you cringe, but in a good way. It's called comedy. In addition it's delivering potentially caustic material with a light touch that makes it human and even warm. Some of the funniest scenes involve backsliding and betrayal of moral principles. However at the same time Hoffman and Pidgeon are a rock for your sympathies and a touchstone for the moral health of the whole production.
There's one plot development I was waiting for that never showed up, in the form of that deranged teenage arsonist from 1960. Where was he? I kept expecting one of the older characters to be unmasked as the same guy forty years later, but no. Perhaps Mamet felt that would be a bit too much of a cliche? Oh, and that English reporter talks such rubbish about Magna Carta that he briefly pushed me out of the movie, since I couldn't believe that he'd be employable either in America or Britain, but maybe I'm just naive.
Overall, an enjoyable, clever film. It made me laugh and I liked spending time with its characters. It's also spoiling me for choice regarding a closing quote for this review.
"What's an associate producer credit?"
"It's what you give your secretary instead of a raise."