Underseen Movie: ‘State and Main’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

One of my favorite parts of “The Ralph Report” podcast has been the Video Vault segment in which Ralph Garman, Steve Ashton and Eddie Pence recommend movies to watch that people may not be particularly familiar with. One episode had the three recommending movies about filmmaking, and Ralph picked David Mamet’s comedy “State and Main.” While listening to him describe this film, it suddenly occurred to me I had rescued a DVD copy of it from a Blockbuster Video store which was about to close forever. It has stood proudly on my shelf for many years, but therein lies the problem; I never took the time to watch the movie, and it was written and directed by Mamet for crying out loud!

So, the question is this, do I put “State and Main” in the “Underseen Movies” category as it was not a huge hit upon its release in 2000, or do I instead put it the one I lovingly titled “No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now?” Come to think of it, maybe I should create a new category entitled “No Longer Gathering Dust on My Shelf” as there are many DVDs and Blu-rays I own which I promised myself to view one day, and yet they still remain unseen by me. So, what are my excuses regarding this? That was a rhetorical question.

Anyway, “State and Main” starts off with a Hollywood film crew invading the small New England town of Waterford, Vermont to make a movie called “The Old Mill.” We quickly learn this crew had been kicked out of New Hampshire as the movie’s star, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), has a penchant for underage girls, something many do not take kindly to (need I say why?). Once the director, Walt Price (William H. Macy) arrives, he thinks he has found the perfect location as the town does indeed have an old mill which the film’s writer, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has centered his screenplay around. They quickly find out, however, that the town’s mill has long since burned down to the ground, so several things, among others, need to be changed in the screenplay even if it goes against the writer’s original intentions.

Part of the fun “State and Main” is watching how Hollywood succeeds in bringing out the worst impulses in everyone. Whether it’s the film crew, the cast or the townspeople, everyone is out to get their piece of the pie, and everyone is a player. A plethora of chaos ensues, and this all happens even before a single frame of footage for “The Old Mill” is shot.

When it comes to Mamet, his plays and screenplays cut really deep when it comes to the real world, and his take on Hollywood players can be quite scathing. Just look at “Speed-the-Plow” in which three movie studio employees engage in a power struggle to get a certain movie made while moving up the corporate ladder to become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Then there was the political satire “Wag the Dog” in which Robert De Niro and Anne Heche and fabricate a war in Albania to distract Americans from a Presidential sex scandal, and they enlist Dustin Hoffman, playing a famous Hollywood producer clearly modeled on Robert Evans. Both projects leave a bitter aftertaste whether you enjoy them or not as Mamet acknowledges how brutal and competitive Hollywood can be when it comes to what gets made and how much truth gets revealed to the world at large.

With “State and Main,” however, Mamet gives us something lighter than he usually does as he revels in the various problems and complexities the characters are forced to deal with. Moreover, while he revels in exposing the Hollywood players for the selfish schmucks they can be, the townspeople prove to be every bit as devious in their own unique ways.

Watching William H. Macy here makes one realize why he and Mamet have had such a fruitful working relationship for so many years. Macy is well versed in the rhythm of Mamet’s dialogue, and he does an excellent job of making his character of Walt Price into a filmmaking veteran who has directed more motion pictures than we are quick to realize. Walt is a pro at handling every and all problems which come his way, and he only loses so much of his cool when one of his assistants tells him his wife has gone into labor. While some directors may be understanding, Macy makes you see why Walt treats the impending birth of a baby as an annoying inconvenience.

Is tempting to say Alec Baldwin was in his prime when he played movie star Bob Barrenger here, but he is still quite the actor after all these years and not just because of his work on “Saturday Night Live.” Baldwin makes Bob into the kind of star whom filmmakers work with against their own best interests as he wants to change the dialogue in the script because it doesn’t sound like something he would say in real life. You want to berate him for his selfishness and remind him he is playing a character and not himself, but Baldwin reminds you of how actors like this one are on an island with themselves to where their egos get the best of them before they could ever realize it.   

Philip Seymour Hoffman left the land of the living a few years ago, and watching him in “State and Main” is a bittersweet reminder of the amazing talent we lost all too soon. As screenwriter Joseph Turner White, the actor gives us the perfect portrait of a man struggling for truth amongst a film crew whom sees the truth as a major inconvenience in the large scheme of things. Even as Joseph is forced to navigate a realm of endless cynicism and casual indifference, Hoffman renders this character as someone whom you believe is determined to remain noble to his beliefs even as many around him have long since given up on morality as a concept.

But seriously, my favorite performance comes from Rebecca Pidgeon as Ann, a local bookseller who helps to lift Joseph out of his latest bout of writer’s block. Right from the start, Pidgeon is so charming and fetching as she delivers Mamet’s dialogue like a true pro and makes Ann into one of the cleverest characters a movie like this could ever hope to have. She is just so much fun to watch here, and I could not help but root for her throughout.

And, with this screenplay written by Mamet, you can sure bet there are many lines of dialogue which sound like something only he could have come up with. Here’s a few worth noting:

“Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun. It’s entertainment.”

“What’s an associate producer credit?

“It’s what you give to your secretary instead of a raise.”

“It’s not a lie. It’s a gift for fiction.”

“I’m going to rip your heart out, then I’m going to piss on your lungs through the hole in your chest! And the best to Marian…”

But my favorite piece of dialogue, and it has always stood out to me even from the film’s trailer, comes from an exchange between Joseph and Ann:

“But it’s absurd.”

“So is our electoral process. But we still vote.”

Now that line remains as true now as it did back when this movie was released, and I can’t help but still laugh at it loudly as the electoral process is being scrutinized today in ways both sound and utterly ridiculous. By the way, Biden won and Trump lost. That is all.

I am not sure where to rate “State and Main” in regards to the other many works of Mamet. At times I wondered if this material might be a little too light for him, but this was clearly not designed to be as emotionally brutal as “Glengarry Glen Ross.” In the end, I think this was a movie everyone in front of and behind the camera had a lot of fun making, and not just because Mamet’s name was on it. A lot of times, movie sets can be nightmarish places regardless of whether or not Scott Rudin is wandering around on them, but the love everyone had for the material is clearly on display here.  

Big thanks to Ralph Garman for giving me and others a reason to check “State and Main” out. Here’s hoping his recommendation will give this film a stronger shelf life than it already has.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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