"State and Main"
This picture satisfies the fascination many people have for the behind-the-scenes realities of how films are made and it's done by someone who knows. David Mamet has enough first hand experience on movie sets to have observed the types of people who come together for a production and he's certainly qualified to draw portraits that represent them. He draws a portrait of one such crew that's fond, comedic and accurate. At least, accurate enough.
When director Walt Price (the ubiquitous and always excellent William H. Macy) arrives in a small, colorful Vermont town with his cinematographer Uberto Pazzi (Vinnie Gustafero), his concern is to adapt the town to the needs of the script after having been ejected from another town. Why? Well, as we'll soon find out, his male star, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) was caught dallying with a nubile miss and small towns aren't too accomodating to such iniquities. The crew was thrown out amidst unmentionable controversy and now have to accomodate their script to this new small town. Just one of the problems is that the picture they're making is titled, "The Old Mill" and this town's mill burned down years ago.
Mamet's portrayal of the director as medicine man, psychiatrist, snake oil charmer, nudger, nurturer, harsh boss and efficiency expert is a character that will be recognizable to anyone who has collaborated on a film set. The job description for motion picture director includes all these skills and much, much more and the best of them will similarly address themselves to all the problems and opportunities that rain down on their parade. Mamet hasn't left much out, and it's enough to raise doubts in the minds of legions of folks, in and out of Hollywood, who imagine that they, too, have what it takes to be a film director.
A completely wrong note by Mamet is in having the director assigning the task of a set change to his cinematographer. This job is for the art director. Whether Mamet didn't know that because the job of the cinematographer is not widely understood, or if he was taking an author's license by telescoping two or three jobs into one for the sake of writing economy, it's difficult to say, but the character and behavior of the cinematographer is ill drawn here, particularly as he personally alters a set in a way that leaps beyond Mamet's own limits of exaggeration.
More accurately and familiarly, the director deals with his star actress, Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is having second thoughts about cheapening her image by baring her breasts before the camera as she is contractually obligated to do, threatening to walk off the set; with an actor who threatens to get the production thrown out of yet another small town as he is drawn to yet another local temptress, Carla Taylor (the very tempting and fetching Julia Stiles); with his insecure screen writer, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who finds love and meaning in this cultural way station while coping with his director's pragmatic and unsacred view of his very personal script.
Meanwhile, director Price is assisted and abetted by his producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer) who comes on like a lion of arrogance and pride, exerting all the bullying tactics of the man who is supposed to have the money but whose Achilles heel is a bank balance that's been depleted to emptiness. Some of his machinations in the procurement of additional funding are not inconsistent with what you read in Variety -- they smack of reality.
So, too, does Mamet's portrayal of the locals who, with stars in their eyes, are more than willing to put up with a little inconvenience for the sake of hobnobbing with Hollywood "royalty" and for the opportunity to appear as extras in a "real Hollywood production". Even Mayor George Bailey (Charles Durning) is captive to the magic as Mamet goodnaturedly mocks the puritanism and politics of small towns and their ever-greedy leadership.
All of which assembles a handy group of caricatures that serve a comedy writer/director well and Mamet pulls it off without trampling on truth too much. It's fun for all, with a special tickle for those who have plied the boards of sound stages and location sets in real life. It's a comedy that is uncommonly successful and, because of the current inundation of big oscar contenders, probably won't get the wide praise it deserves.