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[whitespace] 'State and Main'
When You Wish Upon a Star: The hopes of a floundering movie crew depend upon an egotistical star (Alec Baldwin) and a promiscuous leading lady (Sarah Jessica Parker) in 'State and Main.'

Nothing but the Truth

David Mamet chills the comedy in pallid Hollywood satire 'State and Main'

By Richard von Busack

THERE ARE DEFINITE LIMITS to David Mamet's abilities. You can see these limits reached in State and Main, his pallid comedy about a troop of confused filmmakers stuck in the Norman Rockwell-type Vermont town of Waterford.

Mamet contrasts a group of dithering show-biz liars with a pair of innocent lovers. Let's discuss the lovers first. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Joseph White, a playwright turned screenwriter. He's a man of old-fashioned leanings, dependent on his manual typewriter (a quirk of Mamet's, no doubt--it must be hard to get that rat-a-tat-tat dialogue on a computer).

White is caught in the middle of a sprawl of conflicting needs. There's the film-within-a-film's star, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), a world-famous actor with an even more famous taste for young girls; there's also the pious but promiscuous leading lady, Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), who jumps into White's lap for a time. Finally, there is the weary director, Walt Price (William H. Macy), who has gone along with everyone else's ride for so long that he's quite forgotten what his movie is supposed to be about.

While being bullied and cajoled by the filmmakers, White meets Ann Black, a bookstore owner who guides him. Rebecca Pidgeon plays Ann as an old-fashioned New England girl who knows what she wants. She loves the motto "You Shall Not Bear False Witness" and tries to lure White away from these easy-moraled filmmakers to whom truth is a sometimes thing.

This is the third movie in which Mamet has cast Pidgeon, his wife, including The Spanish Prisoner and The Winslow Boy. Pidgeon has been relatively the same in all. Is she really this firm and chipper in real life? Or, rather, is she a woman for whom there is only one way of looking at every situation? Watch Pidgeon and you'll learn what an attractive quality uncertainty is--and just how uninteresting an actor is who is missing that uncertainty.

Of the cast, only David Paymer seems to breathe. Mostly, he seems real because he's the kind of character Mamet does best, a gruff hard-on of a producer who is funniest in his grumbling description of his dull flight to Vermont--"I flew over pigs; I flew over sheep."

The rest of the cast suffers from the airlessness that's the trademark of Mamet's direction. In drama, Mamet's lack of tone has a point. It lowers the temperature, making a more natural habitat for the human ice cubes in Homicide and House of Games. But in a comedy, this coldness looks sluggardly--even warm performers like Macy, Parker and Charles Durning get stiff from the remoteness.

Why is the Hollywood satire popular? It exposes the schemes and strategies the movies use. Moreover, we can enjoy the fantasy of living in a realm where success rewards the most grand and outrageous lies. State and Main, however, gives us no sense of how the creation of a movie might be worth a little truth-bending. At the end, the lovers Black and White get their way, making sure that the movie within a movie will be "about purity." And who needs movies about purity?

State and Main (R; 102 min.), directed and written by David Mamet, photographed by Oliver Stapleton and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the December 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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