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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

State and Main (review)

Making Movies

Hollywood types love to prove that they’ve got a sense of humor about themselves. That’s how big stars like Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis end up in films like The Player, trying to prove they don’t have the swelled heads we mere mortals think they do by smirkingly appearing as themselves starring in a movie- within- the- movie that’s the same old crap they star in all the time. The Player was about puncturing exactly that kind of smugness, so that’s okay.

State and Main, on the other hand, while the best movie about Hollywood since The Player, is a different kind of beast, one that doesn’t quite denigrate the Hollywood types so much as recognize that they are us, we are them, and we are all together. The quest for recognition and the need to tell stories are inherent attributes of our humanity, though they do get perverted sometimes, and not always in the places you’d expect.
It’s with a sort of terrified awe that the production crew of The Old Mill rolls into Waterford, Vermont. It’s an impossibly Norman Rockwell kind of town: the Dalmatian and the bright red fire engine in the white clapboard firehouse, the little pigtailed girl talking to the crotchety old family doctor as they walk past a white picket fence. The mayor’s name is actually George Bailey (Charles Durning: O Brother, Where Art Thou?). It’s a wonderful life, for some — for others, it’s alien territory. “Let’s try to get out of this town in one piece,” Walt Price (William H. Macy: Happy, Texas, Pleasantville), the director, counsels his cast and crew.

But the giant pothole in the middle of Main Street is our first hint that this isn’t necessarily Norman Rockwell’s America. High school student Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles: The Devil’s Own) is all too happy to help out big movie star Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin: Nuremberg, Outside Providence) in his hobby of seducing underage girls. Local politician Doug MacKenzie (Clark Gregg: Magnolia, The Spanish Prisoner) is all too willing to do whatever it takes to be the biggest fish in his little pond, even if that means sabotaging the Old Mill production.

Not that Waterford isn’t a perfectly nice, normal place… just as the movie folk who are invading are pretty normal, too. If a little bit of Hollywood glamour rubs off on the fine people of Waterford, well, the taste for drama was already there, in the mayor’s wife, Sherry (Patti LuPone: Driving Miss Daisy), who decides on a whim to entirely redecorate her house in preparation for a dinner in honor of the movie; in Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon: The Spanish Prisoner), director of the local theater, who can’t turn around without having some Waterford resident and would-be thespian reciting lines from their play back at her.

Ann has the kind of assured self-confidence we’d expect to see in Walt Price — whose cockiness only covers up his barely held-togetherness — and it’s she who becomes the rock that lets screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman: Almost Famous, The Talented Mr. Ripley) figure out what’s wrong with his script, and fix it… which, in turn, helps The Old Mill‘s leading lady, Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker: Isn’t She Great) deal with her own insecurities. Hollywood influences Waterford, but so does Waterford have some affect on Hollywood.

Written and directed by David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner), State and Main is wicked sharp and laugh-out-loud funny, cutting both Hollywood and Waterford down to bite-size chunks. But it’s the film’s quiet thoughtfulness and unwillingness to treat its characters with nothing less than respect that makes it the true gem that it is.

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MPAA: rated R for language and brief sexual images

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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