Klieg Lights in Vermont

State and Main's ducks are crowded head to tail in their barrel

Playwright-filmmaker David Mamet has the sharpest gift imaginable for shooting down the sins of American greed, the con games people run to get ahead, and the corruption that comes with success. Whether he's haunting a secondhand junk shop, a poker room or an outlying real estate office, he always finds enough horror-tinged folly to go around.

With a wicked ensemble comedy called State and Main, Mamet now levels his guns at the movie industry -- which is an easy target -- and at small-town virtue, which turns out to be even easier. By the time he's done savaging a cynical Hollywood film company that's invaded a picturesque Vermont village, and a gaggle of locals all too eager to sell their souls to Tinseltown, there's almost no one left standing. This is probably the funniest Mamet piece to date (but not the weightiest), and it might be destined to take a seat alongside The Player and Sunset Boulevard in the front row of movieland satires.

For a start, the dramatis personae here are deliciously twisted, and the knowing cast obviously had a ball biting the hand that feeds them. We've got Fargo's William H. Macy as a wheedling movie director named Walt Price, a chameleon who will say virtually anything to anyone to get a shot made on time and under budget. Dashing leading man Alec Baldwin is a dashing leading man named Bob Barrenger whose unsavory hobby is little girls, and Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker is the ditzy bundle of curves Claire Wellesley, whose moral views on getting naked for the camera depend on the size of her paycheck. Our Hollywood hero, insofar as there is one, is a bewildered screenwriter named Joseph Turner White (Magnolia's Philip Seymour Hoffman), who's about to glimpse the difference between life and artifice. Throw in a temperamental European cinematographer, a hilariously creepy entertainment lawyer and a predatory producer, and the crew from the Left Coast is complete.

Star bust: Alec Baldwin (second from left) and David Paymer (far right) in State and Main.
James Bridges
Star bust: Alec Baldwin (second from left) and David Paymer (far right) in State and Main.

Meanwhile, the great optimist Frank Capra would scarcely recognize the townsfolk. Among the assorted social climbers and political strivers in scenic little Waterford, we've got Charles Durning's calculating Mayor George Bailey (same name as the hero of It's a Wonderful Life, no?), Hizzoner's pompous wife, Sherry (Patti LuPone), who starts wearing costumes and turns her house into a faked-up curio shop in honor of the visiting dignitaries, and Julia Stiles as the ambitious local Lolita. Looking for a level head? Try the bemused bookstore owner Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon), who has a natural affinity for Joe. In this little corner of Mamet Land, only the literate -- which is to say Joe White and Ann Black -- have a gambler's shot at redemption. Said Macy in a recent interview: "This is about making a movie. So morality is out the window."

For the invaders, so are inconveniences like a rational plot, characters that make sense and locations that suit the script. By the time State and Main's movie-within-a-movie, which the deluded writer claims is "about the quest for purity," then "about getting a second chance," gets put in the can, it bears no resemblance to the project that first blew into town. Ego clashes, a sex scandal, budget cuts and a pivotal fender-bender at the intersection of Mamet's title put everything asunder. Hollywood has been warped by Waterford no less than Waterford gets warped by Hollywood. By the third reel, flinty New England geezers are reading Variety in the local diner, the local bookstore owner has rewritten the script, and fiction has overwhelmed reality. A courtroom where a real-life hearing is to take place turns out to be a movie set. An entire town has turned into a kind of lie -- like Hollywood -- even as it helps at least one of the Hollywoodians to see the truth.

Mamet delights in such mind games, of course, but until now he hasn't charged them with much laughter. Imagine the ruthless, pathetic salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross standing before a funhouse mirror and you see the comic pose of State and Main's troupe of liars. Imagine the gambler's sleight-of-hand in House of Games performed as bumpkin farce and you get the playwright's vision of good country people corrupted by a taste of fame and power. We may be chuckling for these two hours, but Mamet sets a barbed hook.

If filming this wasn't an act of mass liberation for the players, it's hard to imagine what would be: For a moment, at least, they get to take comic vengeance on every thick-headed tyrant they've ever met in the movie business, every vain star, pretentious director and arrogant lawyer who's ever done them wrong. Of course, that the very cast members having all the fun may actually be the same people they're satirizing amounts to another sort of humor, another level of irony. That rich joke, we can't help surmising, belongs only to Mamet himself.

 
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