In a break from his usual heist-and-hostility routine, David Mamet brings us a movie about movies: temperamental talents, deeply hidden secrets, and the panic of production delays. The premise: the entire cast and crew of Hollywood production The Old Mill has been booted out of the small New England town where they’re filming. As the frantic director tries to hustle another town’s mayor into signing on as their new location, the clock is ticking away. And time is money, people.
Writer-director David Mamet’s dialogue is pointed, clever, witty, and utterly despicable. With its quick, smart humor and characters running the range from “wretchedly angst-ridden” to “utterly vile,” State and Main feels like an Aaron Sorkin show set in Hell. William H. Macy plays director Walt Price with whiplash virtuosity, slipping effortlessly between unctuous gladhanding and vicious rants. Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in another masterful performance as the first-time screenwriter improvising like mad despite his almost total lack of confidence; Hoffman takes the sad-sack role and transcends it. Alec Baldwin delivers one of his nastiest comic roles as the big-name movie star with a loathsome yen for under-aged girls.
And here’s a sneaky little in-joke: the small-town mayor (perfectly played by Charles Durning) is named George Bailey — a poke at Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. As Mamet no doubt knows, Capra’s view of small-town life was far from the whitewashed sentimentality we celebrate in the film today. It’s a Wonderful Life gave us a glimpse of village life’s underbelly, and State and Main would like to pick up where Capra left off, plunging farther into the ghastly depths than Capra ever dreamed. With its vicious wit, its depravities, and its rapid-fire plot complications, State and Main is a screwball comedy of the darkest shade.