- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2000

State and Main could be an intersection in Anytown, U.S.A. For the enfeebled purposes of David Mamet in a comedy dud titled "State and Main," the site is a small Vermont town called Waterford.

Waterford has been invaded by a movie company about to shoot an amorphous period film titled "The Old Mill." The movie company was forced to abandon a New Hampshire locale, where the authorities proved to be uncooperative, according to the writer-director. Mr. Mamet claims he cooked up this fiasco as homage to the classics of Preston Sturges.

Waterford is said to have a vintage old mill, but one of the early jokes is that it burned down years ago. One might work up a little rooting interest in the cinematic intruders if they responded to such potential setbacks by cleverly incorporating the ruins of an old mill in some fashion, but nothing we see of the movie proper or the movie-within-the-movie suggests clever or resourceful professionals.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the screenwriter, Joe White, an apparent simpleton who finds articulation too demanding in most scenes. Perhaps having obscure fun with the backward tendencies in writers, Mr. Mamet pretends to rescue Joe from ineptitude by making him the project of a take-charge townie, Rebecca Pidgeon (Mr. Mamet's wife) as a bookseller and amateur thespian named Ann Black (get it, White and Black?). Self-expression and manipulation are very much down her alley.

Joe has supposedly blundered into a compromising position by being a slow-witted eyewitness to a late-night car wreck at State and Main. The driver is the movie's lecherous leading man, Bob Barrenger, played by Alec Baldwin. His passenger, a susceptible local teen-ager named Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles), is expected to remain mum to protect Bob's notorious reputation. Joe is, too, although dummying up never looks like a crisis of conscience in his case. One doubts that he's capable of remembering the episode and attaching any significance to it, scandalous or otherwise.

Anyway, while the designated smart guys and cutthroats, William H. Macy as director Walt Price and David Paymer as producer Marty Rossen, do their utmost to influence Joe in mercenary or intimidating ways, Ann has countermeasures up her sleeve to protect the poor boob. If anything, she's a little more devious than the movie requires. But if Mr. Mamet hoped to make the droll case that she probably could run any show better than hustlers as shabby as Price and Rossen, I guess it's made.

Sarah Jessica Parker is around to be squandered as the ostensible leading lady of "The Old Mill," Claire Wellesley (named after the college, I think), who puts up a fuss about a nude sequence. That exhausts her role. So many familiar and potentially amusing actors get shortchanged during "State and Main" that one suspects that Mr. Mamet might be trying to mock Woody Allen.

One serendipitous exchange gives the picture something very exploitable for trailers in the wake of the recent election. When Mr. Hoffman has the occasion to observe, "This is absurd," Miss Pidgeon pertly replies, "So is our electoral process, but we still vote."

Most of the dialogue fails to harmonize with either the performers or the location, a Massachusetts town called Manchester-by-the-Sea. The idiom sounds caustic in a stage-bound way that doesn't jibe with fresh air or actual settings.

Mr. Macy and Mr. Paymer are rather like outcasts from a characteristic Mamet play, in which wise guys and treachery get to hog the limelight. Perhaps Mr. Mamet has drifted out of his element by condescending to endorse sweetness and light.{*}TITLE: "State and Main"RATING: R (Frequent profanity; occasional sexual candor and vulgarity)CREDITS: Written and directed by David Mamet. Cinematography by Oliver Stapleton. Production design by Gemma Jackson. Costume design by Susan Lyall. Music by Theodore Shapiro.RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes So many familiar and potentially amusing actors get shortchanged during "State and Main" that one suspects that Mr. Mamet might be trying to mock Woody Allen.

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