With “State and Main,” his lucky seventh stint in the director’s chair, David Mamet stands at the intersection of Arthouse and Mainstream. A bona fide populist laugh riot in which a typically beleaguered and obnoxiously frazzled film crew plays havoc with the citizens of a tiny New England burg — and vice versa — on the eve of a shoot, saucy and eccentric pic seems sure to score at upscale houses and multiplexes alike, and immediately joins the rarefied pantheon of fast-paced and salty screwball comedies about showbiz and the sort of person attracted to it, right up there with Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” and Billy Wilder’s “Kiss Me Stupid.” Set to play the coasts Dec. 22 and break wide Jan. 12, pic is positioned to bring plenty of holiday cheer to Fine Line and looks to be an early lock for year-end kudos.
Fresh from being run out of their New Hampshire location after leading man Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) is caught with another in a series of underaged girls (“Everybody needs a hobby,” he explains with vacuous sincerity), no-nonsense vet helmer Walt Price (William H. Macy) and his pre-production crew land in the small, quasi-picturesque town of Waterford, Vt., on the promise of an authentic structure to feature in their new opus “The Old Mill,” which is only days away from the beginning of principal photography.
Problem is, they’re working from an old tourist brochure, as the mill burned down decades ago. Not to be deterred, Price leans on timid first-time screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to alter the script, unaware that the idealistic scribbler, who got the job on the strength of a play he wrote called “Anguish,” lives up to that title and thus struggles mightily to comply.
White is nurtured through his “Barton Fink”-ish crisis by local bookseller Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon), a serenely spunky townie who spends her evenings planning local plays to benefit a school sports team (“Go You Huskies!” has replaced “Hi” as the local greeting of choice) and is engaged to small-time local pol Doug MacKenzie (Clark Gregg).
Meanwhile, Price ensconces himself in a suite of rooms at the town’s inn and begins the complicated task of making everyone around him miserable. He’s soon joined in this alliance by vicious producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer), whose idea of ethics makes “Survivor” victor Richard Hatch look like a Supreme Court justice. Crises bubbling just under the surface involve the assistant director’s wife, who’s about to give birth (“Is that on the call sheet?” Walt screams when asked for time off); leading lady Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), who whiningly refuses to do her contracted nude scene unless she’s paid an extra eight hundred grand; something called a “dead horse” sequence that’s giving the crew fits; a foreign cinematographer who becomes a vandal in service of his vision; an impending dinner engagement with befuddled Mayor George Bailey (Charles Durning) and his upwardly mobile wife Sherry (Patti LuPone); Barrenger’s clandestine affair with scheming teenager Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles); and the now vengeful Doug, who hits upon the bright idea of milking the production for hefty permit fees.
A true crisis is reached when Barrenger and Carla are hurt after a comic car wreck involving the local pothole and the newly installed traffic light at the town crossroads of the title (“Well, that happened,” says the star dazedly as he pops from the wreckage). White sort of witnesses the accident, and he must make a choice between covering up and coming clean to keep the production from being thrown out of town all over again. It’s Ann to the rescue once more, with the patented Mamet twist played here as the romantic capper to their newly minted love.
Rich with situational humor and laced with a nonstop barrage of often out-of-nowhere barbs aimed at everything from dot-com startups and the electoral college to the true purpose of men’s ties and the meaninglessness of the associate producer credit, Mamet’s script takes the rat-a-tat dialogue he’s known for and applies it to the tenets of screwball comedy, with spectacular results. As with all inhabitants of the Mamet universe who aren’t victims, these players are ruthless, insensitive cold-blooded monsters in single-minded pursuit of the next score or hustle. What’s different is the sheer triviality of their enterprise here and the writer’s obvious affection for it; White talks of the “quest for purity” at the heart of his material, when from all available evidence pic’s well on it’s way to becoming a severely conflicted piece of Hollywood claptrap (like the making of sausage and legislation, the process is neither pretty nor very interesting).
Small-town America takes its share of affectionate ribbing, as bowtie-clad Doc Wilson (Michael Higgins) ambles absently around town carrying his bag and a flask, two crusty geezers take to scrutinizing the leading trade paper with pithy thoughts on per-screen averages, and Mayor Bailey’s wife decides to redecorate the house just for the planned dinner.
Large cast is uniformly excellent, with Macy and Hoffman (who also appeared together in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”) getting the most face time as the wildly mismatched helmer and scribe. Pidgeon continues the attractive, Jean Arthur-ish brand of innocent irony she exhibited in “The Spanish Prisoner,” while Baldwin (appearing in his first Mamet-directed pic after speaking his words in “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “The Edge”) is selflessly thick-headed as the horny superstar. Only Durning, LuPone and Stiles are shortchanged by plot strands that promise more than they deliver — an honorable shortcoming in a work of such rich complexity. As Sturges did throughout his heyday, Mamet stocks his supporting roles with an unofficial rep company that now numbers over a dozen. In keeping with this community spirit, cast list is alphabetical at the head, with closing crawl divided into “Town Folk” and “Film Folk.”
Tech credits are unobtrusively precise (pic was shot in Massachusetts), with the sinuous editing of Barbara Tulliver a major plus (she’s cut all Mamet’s work) and Theodore Shapiro’s music drenching the proceedings with improbably effective whimsy. Cheeky closing crawl features an odd radio interview spoof about the meaning of the film-within-a-film, LuPone warbling a Mamet-penned ditty called “The Song of the Old Mill” and two unusual credits: “Only two animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture” and “A complete list of this film’s associate producers is available upon request.”