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David Mamet, above all, is a writer. He’s only directed a handful of his screenplays but it’s easy to tell which ones due to his distinctive direction. House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, while brilliant and engaging, can come off as absurdly dry. As a writer, he feels that the screenplay is the center of the piece with all other elements of the film or play support that center. It explains why his actors merely recount the lines without feeling. It’s a good theory but restricts actors from interesting performances. His latest movie, State and Main, is an Altman-esque view of the chaos of a film set and manages to avoid the typical dry style.

The film crew for The Old Mill has just been kicked out of the New Hampshire town where they began filming. They’ve arrived in Waterford, Vermont – small town America. Director Walt Price (William H. Macy) is feeling the heat from the costs of the movie that are rising as the production keeps going.

Bob Barranger (Alec Baldwin, a Mamet favorite) is the resident big Hollywood star with a fondness for bourbon and milk and underage girls. Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) is the resident starlet. Claire doesn’t want to bare her breasts for a scene yet she can scarcely keep her clothes on around certain members of the crew. It’s nice to see Sarah Jessica Parker in something besides Sex and the City but she seems to be playing a stock character from the show that Carrie Bradshaw would dismiss.

The writer Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who must have a bet going with Helen Hunt about who can be in more movies this year) is the most sympathetic character in the film. He’s the artist searching for purity in such a corrupt business. How else would Mamet the writer characterize him?

Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles) and her father Jack Taylor (Ricky Jay, who somewhere down the line managed to assure himself small roles in all Paul Thomas Anderson and David Mamet films) run the local diner. Stiles is a resident of a lot of current teen movies but after her performance as Ophelia in the Ethan Hawke Hamlet, she is certainly one to watch for the future. Carla notices Barrenger’s eccentric tastes and becomes the potential downfall of the movie crew.

A car accident involving Barranger’s two weaknesses – bourbon and underage girls - is cause for the final confrontation of the film. Aspiring politician Doug Mackenzie sees this as the perfect opportunity to get attention and extract revenge on the filmmakers for stealing his fiancée and cheating the town out of its due for the use of their property.

White is at the epicenter of the conflict in this town. He is the person who steals away Doug MacKenzie’s (Clark Gregg) fiancée, fueling Doug’s hatred of the film crew. He is also the only witness to the car crash. He is the one confronted with the most interesting choice of the film. He could represent Mamet’s alter ego, as he is the only one in the film concerned with purity and ends up with the charming local owner of the bookstore, Ann Taylor (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife).

At times it’s a surprisingly sweet and romantic comedy for a man who is solely responsible for the introduction of the word fuck into contemporary American theater. At other times, it seems like diluted Mamet. It doesn’t cast any new light on the familiar theme of Hollywood corruption. We have movie stars with big egos, the director who is so self involved that he won’t let a crewman go home to his wife who is giving birth, the ruthless movie producer (David Paymer who is the most Mamet-esque element of the film), and the only moral fiber in the movie is present in the all-important writer and his lovely girlfriend.

There are hints of political undertones throughout the film. These elements don’t add much to the film, however, and prove to be as trite as the commentary on Hollywood with greedy politicians, shameless manipulation of people and property through shady side dealings.

This film is enjoyable, especially for Mamet fans, but doesn’t stand out among his other work.

 

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