David Mamet dips into the same inkwell of wicked wit that he employed to devastate politics in “Wag the Dog” to satirize the film business itself in his latest picture, but his take on the underbelly of small-town location moviemaking, while sometimes trenchant and almost always amusing, doesn’t have the sharpness or consistency of that 1997 satire. It may simply be that we’re all too aware of the vanities and compromises that are constantly present in the world of entertainment, but for all its strengths–and there are many–“State and Main” comes across as a little pallid compared with its predecessor. (It says something that the single most hilarious line in it is about elections and voting, which is given an added kick by our recent presidential fiasco.)
The focus of the flick is on the cast and crew of a period picture titled “The Old Mill” who have been ejected from one tiny New England town because of the penchant of star Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) for underage girls (“Everybody needs a hobby,” he explains) and wind up in a Vermont village which they choose as an alternative site. Leader of the pack is unctuous, effortlessly deceptive director Walt Price (William H. Macy)–he refers to his gift for persuasive mendacity as “a talent for fiction”–but he’s soon joined by his wily, cunning producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer). Town mayor George Bailey (Charles Durning–the name is an obvious swipe at “It’s a Wonderful Life”) okays the use of the town, provided that the moviemakers meet the social expectations of his snooty, ambitious wife (Patti LuPone). Twin crises erupt, however, when co-star Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) suddenly gets religion and refuses to do her contracted nude scene without additional payment, and Barrenger is implicated in a dalliance with a young townie (Julia Stiles). Caught in the middle in both cases is idealistic scripter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who must rewrite the screenplay while confronted with the possibility of having to testify against Bob, whose indiscretions he’s witnessed. His dilemma isn’t made any easier by an unlikely romance with a local bookstore owner, Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon), who has high expectations of him.
Curiously, “State and Main” shares one obvious element with “Wag the Dog”–the linchpin of the plot in each case is a charge of pedophilia against an important man–and both pictures cast a cynical eye on how such allegations are likely to be resolved. But in the earlier film the ramifications were funnier, probably they were played at whiplash energy by such actors as Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman under Barry Levinson’s cunningly gauged direction. Here Mamet directs his own script, and while he’s certainly gained confidence and skill in that capacity over the years, he’s still not the equal of someone like Levinson. Too many scenes are pitched a trifle sluggishly, so that the writing doesn’t have quite the dash it should. The picture comes across as amiable when it ought to be slashing.
Some of the actors are a little off their best, too. Macy, a Mamet favorite, is least affected; he handles the author’s strangely realistic yet somehow mannered sentences with the greatest poise, and he’s nearly matched by Paymer, who seems born to play a Hollywood shark. Baldwin and Parker do nicely as the vain, pampered pair of stars, though neither reaches the pinnacle of self-absorption the roles might warrant. Hoffman is less happy as the conflicted writer; Mamet encourages him to overdo the character’s halting indecisiveness. As his love interest, Pidgeon looks more than ever like Sigourney Weaver’s younger sister, and she’s got the lady’s brisk, no-nonsense manner down pat. Durning, Stiles and LuPone are no better than acceptable in roles that seem unwritten or truncated.
One shouldn’t be too hard on “State and Main.” It’s certainly an amusing picture with some nicely stinging lines and pungent observations, and it boasts a formidable cast. It might just be that its targets are too easy for it to have the same impact that “Wag the Dog” did, though the participation of a more experienced helmer might have sharpened things up. If you go, however, be sure to stay through the closing credits, which include a couple of the best jibes since the heyday of the Abrahams-Zucker team. One involves animals and the other associate producers, and both are as funny as anything in the body of the picture.