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IN SHORT: An intelligent comedy for adults. More romance than comedy, though. [Rated R for language and brief sexual images. 102 minutes]
In the teeny little town of Waterboro, Vermont, a film crew has come a calling. T'ain't that these big city Hollywood types want to be in Vermont. It's just that they got booted out of a similar town in New Hampshire for reasons writer/director David Mamet's comedy State and Main doesn't need to go too deeply into. The crew calls it "ransom" -- having to do with a set they built and are denied access too -- but they're on a schedule and must move on. It may be just the hint of dialog about that pre-story situation which left us wanting to know more, but that perfectly sums up Mamet's comedy. We want more.
Mamet is best known for heavy duty dramatics and this follow-up to The Winslow Boy continues his assault on that rep. Unlike Winslow, which is a highly recommended period piece, State and Main only begins to showcase a similar talent for comedy. Even when he is not writing in an urban setting, Mamet still pens dialog that has an urban feel. In this case, he has written a very intelligent story which is occasionally very, very funny. The keyword in at last sentence is occasionally. While we wish we could say that State and Main is a bust-a-gut knee-slapper, we can't. While the dialog is sharp and funnier than not, the film fails to deliver more than a pair of belly laughs. The film's strength, and this should come as no surprise, is in the characters at the non-comedic heart of the story.
We're also a bit concerned that a lot of this gentle humor, being film biz related, might not connect with a "regular" audience. We've worked on film crews in small towns. State and Main doesn't come close to the kind of disruption we've seen, but its time frame is mostly in the preproduction stage. The production crew has yet to arrive, which means only a handful of participants in the story. Small is good.
The team that descends on Waterboro include mega-superstar Bob Barringer (Alec Baldwin), a dimbulb star with a sexual "hobby" that is flat out illegal; his manipulative co-star Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), casually referred to as "the broad" by most of the crew; playwright Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has carefully crafted a script that needs major rewrites when "The Old Mill" of the title proves to be financially out of reach, among other things; director Walt Price (William H. Macy), who must get his movie made, regardless of whether he must cajole or commandeer; producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer) who must get his movie made, even if he is $800,000 short because one star is making last minute demands.
In the town we meet Mayor George Bailey (Charles Durning) who is more than happy to have film stars in his aging and economically dying town; Clark Gregg (Doug MacKenzie) a burgeoning politician who wants to see the money and his fiancee Annie Black (Rebecca Pidgeon) who runs the town theater group and is smitten by the big city playwright, whose work she's admired for years.
Small town girl, Big City guy, yadda yadda yadda. That story has been done to death but here it is engaging and the true heart of the movie. The relationship between sensible Annie and the insecure playwright, this is his first big screen gig and he fears losing it every day of the preproduction period that is the timeframe of this story, sparkles with a building chemistry between Hoffman and Pidgeon. When you give actors quality dialog and time to work their way, which Mamet does, you get intelligent and more than satisfying results.
But State and Main is billed as a comedy and on that level is filled with potholes as big as the one in the middle of Main Street. This is not a genitals-in-the-ear style comedy -- and wouldn't that have been a major shock. It's humor comes in the dialog, as in life, funny reactions that you never see coming. It is a gentle humor, only two big belly laughs rocked the crowd I sat with, and it fails to build towards the big blowout Capra-esque climax that it tries to. That climax involves a very fine looking young lady named Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles) who works at the local diner and the high-falutin' mayor's wife Sherry (Patti LuPone), accidentally snubbed by the crew. Individually, we've got no problem with any of the performances. We walked in expecting comedy and, taken as a whole, this comedy only simmers.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to State and Main, he would have paid...
Pay per View level. We should add that, a week after seeing State and Main on the big screen, we watched it again on our home teevee, prior to doing Cranky Critic® StarTalk with Alec Baldwin. On the small screen, the flick was hysterically funny. We can't be sure if it was because we missed a lot of subtle jokes the first time or if its because, as we've noted before, some movies just work better on the small screen.
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