State of the Art

David Mamet pokes fun at Tinseltown from the inside.

IN DAVID MAMET'S LATEST film, State and Main, a Hollywood screenplay writer says to a small-town theater manager, "I guess around here you have to make your own fun." "You always have to make your own fun," the manager says. "If you don't make it yourself, it's not fun, it's entertainment."

Mamet is probably the only big-league filmmaker who'd be willing to let that cat out of the bag. While Hollywood likes to pretend that it will take stabs at any sacred cow, attacking the very notion of entertainment is something that would never even occur to the media-sotted masses who rule our nation's true capital.

Mamet's genetic makeup includes very few Hollywood alleles, yet he's made a name for himself with such films as The Spanish Prisoner, Homicide and House of Games (all of which are well worth renting). Thus, he's able to produce an insider's look at the movie business while maintaining an outsider's disdain for it. State and Main benefits from this to become not only Mamet's best film so far, but also one of the best films of the year (technically, State and Main is a 2000 release).

William H. Macy stars as the director of a film, The Old Mill, whose cast and crew had to move to Vermont when they were chased out of the New Hampshire town where they had been filming. The reason for their sudden relocation is never given, but it is hinted that star Bob Barenger (Alec Baldwin, who does what he does best here, broad comedy) and his taste for very young girls may have had something to do with it.

Unfortunately, their new location lacks one essential element for a film called The Old Mill, that being an old mill.

It seems that the town had an old mill, but it burned down in the '60s, part of a string of mysterious fires that led to the formation of the Waterford Wildcats. What the Wildcats are (a sports team? a civic group? terrorists?), what caused the fires and how this could lead to the formation of the Wildcats is never explained, though the fact that this did indeed occur is mentioned repeatedly, and in exactly the same words, by just about everyone in town.

It's this kind of weirdness that sets Mamet apart. His scripts are full of little gems, repeated phrases, unexplained back story and odd rhythms. He is one of the few Hollywood scriptwriters whose scripts would actually be enjoyable to read.

Although he's always been good at writing human interactions, Mamet's characters have become much more rich and varied as he's matured. Ann Black, the central figure in State and Main, is, however, classic Mamet. She's a local theater manager and bookstore owner, played by Rebecca Pidgeon, who is one of the best, and most underutilized, actresses around today. In fact, she pretty much steals the show, which is no small feat when she's cast against such high-quality performers as Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and such big names as Baldwin and Sara Jessica Parker.

Pidgeon's bizarrely flat mannerisms and speaking style make her the perfect mouthpiece for Mamet's best lines. In fact, it seems that she's playing Mamet's stand-in in this movie, as she, like Mamet, is a veteran of live theater who suddenly finds herself surrounded by movie types.

Pidgeon's Ann Black and Old Mill scriptwriter Joseph Turner White (Hoffman) form an alliance, wherein she basically rewrites his screenplay to allow for the absence of an old mill, and to allow for the fact that lead actress Claire Wellesley (Parker) has suddenly decided that she cannot show her breasts on film, in spite of the fact that, as one film crew member puts it, "most of the nation could draw her breasts from memory."

The relation between Black and White is the focus of the film, but the movie is dense with other stories, including the illicit affair between movie star Bob Barenger (Baldwin) and local teenager Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles), the bumbling efforts of local mayor George Bailey (Charles Durning) to get the movie stars to come to dinner with his wife (Patti Lupone), and the scheming of small-town politician Doug MacKenzie to milk a little extra cash from the Hollywood big-wigs.

Obviously, most of the characters' names are puns or references to old films, including the local doctor, known only as "Doc Wilson." This kind of wordplay is part of what makes Mamet so fun. While in the past Mamet has mostly used these skills for drama and suspense, in State and Main he puts his efforts toward comedy, and makes one of the smartest and funniest movies in recent memory.

State and Main opens Friday at Century Gateway (792-9000) and Catalina (881-0616).
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