State and Main (2000)

Directed by David Mamet

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State and Main has the feeling of an old 1940s screwball comedy.  The dialogue is lightning fast, the problems are telegraphed from a mile away but are no less entertaining, and there’s even a charming romance and ethical dilemma at the heart of it.

It’s about the last week of preproduction for a film titled The Old Mill, shot in a tiny little town that might as well be Grover’s Corner.  One of the running jokes in the film is that the producer keeps asking the writer if it has to be an old mill, seeing as how they don’t have the money to construct one themselves.

The characters are big and bombastic.  There is the star actor Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) who has a history with underaged girls, the money-bags producer, the overly-sensitive lead actress, Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), the fidgety screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the demanding but overworked director trying to keep it altogether.

Each character becomes an accumulation of stereotypes.  The actor wants nothing but to be adored, and he’ll get himself into trouble with the law in a way a Kennedy might.  The actress needs constant affirmation, the screenwriter struggles to stretch the story to fit ever-changing budget restrictions, and the producer must put an end to townsfolk who decide they want a cut of the profits.

It’s riveting in its own way because of how fast this all moves, how characters walk and talk over each other, and how the film conveys the utter confusion on any kind of large-scale project like this.  It’s a strange ecosystem filled to the brim with ego and vulnerability and then a whole hell of a lot of money.  It’s a lot of self-serious characters who think what they’re doing, making a movie, is the most important thing in the world.

The characters who live in town can kind of chuckle at them at first, but soon they get pulled in.  The local drama troupe disbands as would-be actors insist on spending more time rehearsing for their auditions to be background extras.  The leader of that drama troupe, Ann (Rebecca Pidgeon) begins to fall in love with the screenwriter Joseph, and so she breaks up with her politically-minded boyfriend, Doug (Clark Gregg), who turns his frustration into a campaign against the movie production as a whole.

Wanting to use this opportunity to advance his own political career, Doug only has a case when he learns that Joseph did in fact witness Bob Barrenger crash his car while drunk and with an underaged girl in the car.  Joseph, then, must testify before a judge and must either lie (thus preserving his budding movie career) or tell the truth (which would endear him further to Ann).

The conclusion here has a few absurd twists and turns that only typically work in cartoons.  They are broad, comical and largely romantic, but I’d say they work because the film never loses sight of the emotional truth.  Being a melodrama of sorts the film’s through line follows the ebbs and flows of these characters and their immense vulnerability.  You get the sense that for so many of them this is a huge inflection point in their life, not just their career.

It’s big, loud, showy but weirdly humanistic and charming.  In the end things mostly work out for all involved, and the final shot of the film watches as the crew and the townsfolk watch in awe as a movie is being shot.  They might as well be watching Jesus walk on water.

Up Next: Back to the Future Part II (1989), Presumed Innocent (1990), Joker (2019)

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