Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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State and Main: The fly-over country takes Hollywood to task

Yahoos everywhere, gather around. In the exotic Hollywood dialect, you and I live in "fly-over country" - as in, that part of the country (most of it) someone from Los Angeles (or New York) is forced to fly over in order to reach the opposite coast.

Generally, the phrase is used with a hint of disdain - no surprise. But in the hands of writer-director David Mamet, fly-over country gets more complicated than a catchall. And in a switch for the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Glengarry Glen Ross and other brusque, tough guy tales of bitterness and desperation, it's pretty funny, too.

Mamet's latest movie, State and Main, is a combo of sorts: a charming screwball salute to the 1940s comedies of Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, Hail the Conquering Hero), coupled with a juicy insider take on the arrogance of Hollywood, but with a twist: Fly-over country vents about Hollywood, and vice versa. Mamet's Hollywood is a place and a four-letter word; it's the "Hollywood" movie critics reflexively use as shorthand for shallow, the code word that senators use when they talk about declining moral standards, and an industry that Mamet begrudgingly, obviously, loves.

The movie is set in Vermont, which is sort of on a coast, but could just as well be fly-over country. "I flew over pigs, I flew over cows ..." mutters movie producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer) after landing in Waterford, the small fictional Vermont town about to get a mixed blessing: A big Hollywood movie wants, no demands, to shoot there. But Mamet doesn't pull his satirical punches here either: every little Waterford girl has a ponytail, every street has a wise-cracking country doctor, every morning the same locals gather at the same 1940s sandwich shop to complain about the traffic lights.

So State and Main even looks like a Sturges comedy. Panic isn't subtext, it's the entire text: By the time director Walt Price (William H. Macy), screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his stars, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) and Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), arrive, problems are snowballing.

Never mind that the movie is over budget and Barrenger has a dangerous thing for 14-year-olds, Walt's assistants don't understand that he doesn't eat carbohydrates, and Claire won't do her nude scene - even though, Walt says, America could draw her breasts from memory. A local politico (Clark Gregg) wants to shake down the production, so Marty threatens to sue him for so much that his family and his descendants will forever live in poverty. Oh - also, the town's old mill burnt down in 1960, and the movie they're making is called The Old Mill.

Using Mamet's trademark staccato dialogue, Macy's Price has a zillion conversations at once, and Mamet himself whirls a half-dozen fun subplots, but at 102 minutes, 20 minutes too long, State and Main can't sustain the manic pace he tries to achieve.

Midway through writing it, Mamet apparently realized he had some great scenes but no clear plot and felt the need to tack on yet another plot involving perjury and morality. It slows everything down - but not to a crawl. At the core of the film is a sweet romance between Hoffman's screenwriter, who wants to be poignant and creative in the midst of chaos, and a local bookshop owner, Ann (played by Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon), so smart and confident that she glows. Their sparks alone are luminous enough to buoy the movie - as is Mamet's decision to refrain from giving the audience, be it from Hollywood or NormanRockwellville, a need to applaud its own behavior.

Still, State and Main sat in my head, and with every mention of it, its memory has grown fonder. Sort of like fly-over country.

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