If you've ever read Mamet's On Directing Film or True and False: Common Sense and Heresy for the Actor, you know his almost foolhardy faith in the movie script. His direction to actors: Do not emote. Do not act. Do not add anything. Just say the lines. Go to the door. Turn the knob. Open it. Cut. Print. His direction to directors: It is pornography to draw attention to yourself as a director. If you want to give the impression of somebody arriving, do not soar over a car driving up to a house, then crane through a window where a person jumps up and calls out to the arriving car. Instead: Show a close-up of car wheels. Then cut to a close-up of man's head looking upwards. The understanding we get from this simple montage is "Somebody is arriving."
Mamet believes directing is finished before you ever step one foot on a set--your shot list is in your back pocket, and that's all you need. As a result, his filmography--Homicide, House of Games, Oleanna, Things Change, The Spanish Prisoner and The Winslow Boy--are unassailably solid, but very frequently unmemorable. There's something cold about them. They feel as if they were directed according to a scientific formula, which indeed they were. Perhaps the best way of counterbalancing this formula is to use it to make a romantic comedy. The awkwardly titled new film, State and Main, mixes the romantic comedy with that most tired of genres, the "film-about-a-film." In Mamet's cynical hands, though, it promised to be a relatively painless affair, and it certainly is.
As State and Main opens, the production company of the film, The Old Mill, has been kicked out of the small New Hampshire town where they were about to shoot, and has decided to descend upon the small burg of Waterford, Vt., instead. Director Walt Price (William H. Macy) is impassioned, but about all the wrong things (what color is the collar of the fireman's coat, and so on). Hunky star Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) is amiable enough but has a weakness for underage girls. Actress Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) is having a breakdown because she doesn't want to bear her breasts on-screen.
Humble writer Joseph White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is our hero, and he is so quietly morally strong, that--despite his pedestrian looks--he becomes the perfect protagonist. Even though the segments of his script that are read aloud seem pretty awful, never are they used to make Joseph look stupid. In fact, Mamet has made Joseph's writing so overtly bad that we feel free to turn off our bullshit meters and just enjoy Joseph's journey.
In Waterford, Joseph White meets local bookstore owner Ann Black. (Are we to make something out of this "Black" and "White"? I doubt it.) When it turns out Waterford's "old mill" burned down some 30 years ago, Ann helps Joseph re-work his script. A romance brews. Meanwhile, catastrophes of the first order continue, and the small-town folk become enamored of the idea of being film stars.
As he watches his beloved work being blown to pieces, Joseph's anguish is easy to understand. A script is a tiny, perfect, pure thing, like a diamond. The act of pre-production smashes that diamond into a million tiny pieces, each fragment representing one single shot and the particular actors, props, crewmembers and costumes needed to create that moment. The act of production, then, is picking up each one of these pieces, holding it to the light, and filming that one tiny sliver of the diamond.
For a writer, this is highly traumatic and something that Mamet, one of Hollywood's premiere script doctors, knows a lot about. Filmmaking is the most rude and intrusive of arts--if you've ever been on a movie set, you've seen crewmembers charging around barking orders, thoughtlessly conquering whatever location they've chosen. It feels as if everyone, from the Oscar-winning producer on down, thinks they have the most important job in the world, when all they're doing is making a two-hour piece of entertainment.
In contrast to Waterford's small-town folk, the movie people can only talk about their jobs, since they have so little concept of the big picture--both cinematically and spiritually. When Mamet's obsessive but still likeable troops invade Waterford, the local diner denizens stop chatting about that broken stop light over State and Main streets and start chatting about the inflated box office grosses of recent Hollywood releases as they page their way through Variety.
Mamet nails some of the perfect details of small-town life--the weird tendency for the tiniest towns to always have souvenirs with the town's name on it, the way that a store's "Be back at 2:00" sign might mean "2:30" or "3:00." His small-town characters, however, are a little sketchy. They are manipulated by the more intellectually superior film folk from the get-go. The only exception is Ann, who is the most problematic character in the film.
Played by Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, with the same blustery assault she used in The Spanish Prisoner, Ann is an unheralded genius who has not an ounce of shyness or self-doubt. While the character worked in the noir-esque Prisoner, in State and Main, Pidgeon is like some kind of space alien. It doesn't mean she's not likeable; she is. But one more role like this, and Pidgeon will forever be labeled as some sort Mamet-bot, spitting out his data like some sort of machine.
Mamet's biggest success is the portrayal of his film crew. No matter how bad they get--swearing at locals, statutory rape, you name it--you never feel like they're bad people. They are shown as driven, intelligent, articulate hard workers. They just play by a set of rules that don't work as well in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Instead, they live in a weird world where "I want to see pictures of women's tits!" can be yelled, and nobody takes it as out of the ordinary.
Although often seen as a renegade of sorts, Mamet cut his teeth on classic Hollywood cinema and honors its rules, even within his strict directorial formula. This gives his work an enjoyable inevitability: We know that the two romantic leads will get together, we know that everything will work out, and we know there will be the big kiss at the end. The joy is how these fixed elements will be woven together. When done incorrectly (as in just about any romantic comedy ever released), these genre touch-points feel more like handicaps and clichés.
Unfortunately, Mamet is so concerned with bastardizing the pure art of cinema that he bogs himself down in his chilly "rules." State and Main is a gentle good time, and another admirable effort from one of our most reliable craftsmen. But if Mamet ever wants to achieve as a director the success he's had as a writer, he needs to do the same thing with his director's chair as he did with his playwright's pen--take some chances.