It may well be that David Mamet has not spoken a word in public, or written a word of political commentary, that I have agreed with in the last ten years. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Mamet decided that liberalism was dangerous for America and the world, a position with which I strongly disagree. But no matter how I feel about his politics, you could not drag a bad word about Mamet’s screenwriting out of me with a tractor. From Glengarry Glen Ross to Redbelt, Mamet uniformly writes razor-sharp screenplays that are almost effortless in how they arrive at those truths which rule us on levels far deeper than politics. Among all of those screenplays, the very best of them might be 2000’s State and Main, which Mamet also directed.
State and Main is not so much a plot as a concept: a movie is being made, a period piece, and its director (William H. Macy) needs a picturesque American town to stand in for the 19th Century. He thinks he’s found it in idyllic Waterford, but there are endless complications, from his neurotic writer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to his flighty stars (Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker) to a local lawyer with political aspirations (Clark Gregg, a.k.a. The Avengers‘ Agent Coulson).
The first two-thirds of State and Main are as close to straight comedy as Mamet has ever done for film. His screenplays always have a dark sense of humor, and most of them contain characters like Macy’s abrasive, hilariously profane power-player. But Mamet’s movies had never before gone to the level of farce, as in the scene where Hoffman has to juggle a nude Parker with his local love interest without them finding out about each other. This is a big part of the reason why I liked State and Main; even in scenes which didn’t quite pop they way that I wanted them to, I was still impressed that I was seeing Mamet go outside of my comfort zone with his work.
Which is not to say that this was completely unknown territory for Mamet. The corrupt, corrupting nature of the movie business is a theme that he had visited before, including his Oscar-nominated movie Wag the Dog and his Tony-nominated play Speed-The-Plow.* The difference is that State and Main is played directly for comedy, and for a good amount of its running time we don’t expect it to be played any other way. Every time Hoffman’s writer tells us that his movie is “about purity,” it’s a laugh-line, either because he’s talking to someone who we know to be completely impure, or because he’s talking to someone who was expecting an answer more along the lines of, “it’s about a firefighter.”
And then, in the movie’s final third, a dramatic conflict suddenly does arise, with each and every character in the movie tied into it in some way. This is the real brilliance of this screenplay, structurally: no character, nor any of the character-developing moments that we’ve had with them, goes to waste. To borrow a phrase from hunting, Mamet likes to “use every part of the animal” for his stories. Any scene, any line, any character which isn’t servicing the main conflict is going to waste, in his mind. And where some of Mamet’s films fulfill his goal awkwardly – the establishing scene with the magician in Redbelt is downright painful – State and Main is so elegant that it is impossible not to marvel at its efficiency.
This cast of this movie is just jaw-dropping. Not only did Mamet find the right actor for every role, but he found them at the right time – Hoffman had just the right amount of hair, Baldwin was carrying just the right amount of weight, and Parker had just the right amount of real-world fame to understand her character. You couldn’t make this movie with The Master-era Hoffman, or 30 Rock-era Baldwin, or Sex in the City-era Parker. Even Julia Stiles – an actress that Hollywood has always seemed to be confused about the right use for – steps into her role as though it were a well-fitting dress.
Although I think State and Main is probably Mamet’s best screenplay, that’s not necessarily to say it’s his best movie, because film is a visual medium and this movie’s look has some problems. The film was shot on location in small towns throughout Massachusetts, but I found myself wondering throughout if it had been filmed on a backlot or soundstage. Mamet’s focus on his actors is perhaps too high, because every outdoors shot in this movie pulls in too close. Some fundamental small-town-ness of the locations is lost. Visually, this movie simply can’t compare with later Mamet films like Spartan and Redbelt, but it’s never so distracting as to take you away from the film’s humor.
Probably the only truly awkward part of State and Main is Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet’s real-life wife) as Hoffman’s love interest. She’s a fine actress, and the character’s dialogue is as well-written as any other, but the nature of her situation just seems … strange. I was thinking about this movie afterward, and imagined any other writer having this conversation with his producer:
Producer: So the writer in the movie, he meets a girl.
Producer: And it’s like love at first sight with them, because she is a writer too.
Writer: And an actress, and a director. She does plays in this small town.
Producer: Okay, who are you looking at to play this writer’s dream girl?
Writer: My wife.
Producer: Get out.
This is possibly the drawback of having David Mamet write your movie: the dialogue is going to be so damned good that the negative aspects of the movie are hidden, but they don’t go away. They sneak up on you some time later, time-released second thoughts about the movie you liked so much while you were watching. I didn’t even notice that Mamet was basically asking Pidgeon to play a Mary Sue version of herself until a day later, so clearly it’s not a big drag on the movie’s performance.
The kicker of State and Main is that Hoffman’s story really is about purity. It’s not about the purity of small-town America, because Mamet clearly believes that anybody can give up their purity if exposed to enough money and power. It’s not about one man’s purity changing the world, because even if one stands up for oneself the impurity of other people (especially the people with all of the money) is often too much to overcome. It’s not even about the intrinsic value of purity, because purity means something different for each person in the film. But there is something about the way this film ends, something which shows us how important purity is, for its own sake. Regardless of your politics or where you live or what you do or how much money you make, your own purity means something to someone … or if not, the pure amount of laughs in this movie will satisfy as well.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The audiobook version of Speed-The-Plow, starring Jeff Goldblum, Adam Arkin, and Dina Waters, is perhaps the quintessence of David Mamet’s writing for the stage. You can buy it from iTunes or on Audible.com, and I highly recommend that you do.