[Screen It]

(2000) (William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman) (R)

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Comedy: A Hollywood film crew descends upon a quaint New England town hoping to make their movie, only to find various complications disrupting and impeding their shoot.
Having been banished from shooting in New Hampshire, director Walt Price (WILLIAM H. MACY) and his Hollywood film crew, including cinematographer Uberto Pazzi (VINNE GUSTAFERO) and first assistant director Tommy Max (JIM GRANGIONE), arrive in the small town of Waterford, Vermont short of both money and time. With only a few days before his cast arrives, Walt needs a locale to pass for the 19th century setting of his film, "The Old Mill."

Unfortunately, and despite what the brochures say, the town hasn't had an old mill since it and other structures mysteriously burned down in the 1960s. Unfazed and ever resourceful, Walt simply tells novice screenwriter Joe White (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN) to write the old mill out the movie, but the scribe can't even do that since he can't find a manual typewriter.

Fortunately for him, local bookstore proprietor and community theater director Ann Black (REBECCA PIDGEON) has several. Kindred spirits, she and Joe immediately hit it off, despite her being engaged to ambitious politician, Doug MacKenzie (CLARK GREGG), who's determined to squeeze as much money out of the production for the town as possible.

While Waterford's mayor, George Bailey (CHARLES DURNING) and his wife Sherry (PATTI LuPONE) prepare for a huge dinner at their home, stars Bob Barrenger (ALEC BALDWIN) and Claire Wellesley (SARAH JESSICA PARKER) arrive in town, each bringing their own set of complications. While Barrenger's penchant for under-aged girls keeps everyone on their toes - especially after he meets local waitress Carla Taylor (JULIA STILES) - the bigger concern is Claire's sudden decision not to do a topless scene as previously agreed upon in her contract.

As such, Walt calls in producer Marty Rossen (DAVID PAYMER) who's known for his strong-arm tactics. As he gets after Claire to do the scene, Joe tries to keep up with the many story changes and Barrenger gets into a car accident with a young woman that has to be covered up, Walt does what he can to keep the film on schedule and get his shots no matter what that might take.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Having previously worked in the TV business for more than a decade and dealing with talent ranging from national politicians to celebrities, I can you what all of that's really like. Contrary to the notion that it's exciting, glamorous and non-stop fun, TV production is usually boring and decidedly less than glamorous work comprised of around ten percent "action" and ninety percent sitting around waiting for that "action" to occur.

While I have no such firsthand knowledge of a "behind the scenes" view of filmmaking, I've heard and can only otherwise guess that it's just as bad and often sometimes rather worse. Sure, you get to see and maybe meet some big Hollywood stars - that is, if you're lucky, are working on that sort of film and happen to be in their immediate vicinity. However, most of the long and arduous days are spent setting up, testing, waiting, briefly shooting and then striking any given set.

Of course, making a film about the making of a film - and doing so in a realistic fashion that doesn't fall into the documentary format - would result in a movie just as boring as the real thing. Thus, and like they do for must subjects and occupations, most filmmakers of such pictures usually jazz up the proceedings, hopefully cut out all of the boring material, and present viewers with an entertaining look behind the scenes.

Since moviegoers are obviously interested to some degree in such matters, most usually enjoy watching such film within a film movies. Writer/director David Mamet's entry in the genre, "State and Main," should prove to be no exception to that observation. The story of what happens when a film crew descends upon a small town only to disrupt and be disrupted by the locals, the film is an amusing, but not gut-busting throwback to the ensemble, screwball comedies of yesteryear.

Featuring a great cast and a terrific script from Mamet (marking the seventh time he's directed a film from one of his own scripts such as he did with "The Spanish Prisoner" and "House of Games"), the film gently skewers both the entertainment industry and small town America that, like the former, is rarely as interesting or exciting in real life as it's usually presented in the movies.

Not many will argue that few, if any, people on a movie set or in a small town talk like Mamet's characters - except possibly for the playwright turned filmmaker himself - but that's a great of the fun in watching one of his films.

Intelligent, witty and nearly always amusing, the dialogue is the kind we'd all love to have rolling off our tongues at all times (to appear or at least sound brighter than all of our "ahs" and "ums" otherwise suggest). Thankfully, Mamet's work has matured in the sense that it finally has that movie sound rather than that of stage dialogue appearing on film.

Although his words have always been entertaining to hear on stage or the silver screen, at times his dialogue - where characters would occasionally repeat what they've just said - didn't sound natural and/or would draw undue attention to itself. Here, that interesting, but often awkward stage cadence is gone, replaced with a more natural and realistic sounding rhythm.

Both small town life and Hollywood are fair game in Mamet's story, and most of the humor stems from their joint deconstruction. In one scene, the film's "do anything" director - perfectly played by William H. Macy ("Mystery Men," Fargo") - learns to his horror that many of the town's historical landmarks, such as the old mill that was earmarked to appear in the film, no longer exist.

As a result, that director simply tells the novice screenwriter -- Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Almost Famous," "Flawless") in yet another terrific performance - to scrap everything dealing with the mill. Of course, he doesn't take into consideration that the film is entitled, "The Old Mill" and is - yes, you guessed it - a pivotal part of the story.

Although such moments and others -- including the running gag of the town's one pothole getting every car that drives by -- aren't likely to have people rolling in the aisles or losing control of certain bodily functions - this isn't a Farrelly brothers movie, after all - they and the rest of the film's humor are clever and amusing throughout.

The fun, of course, comes from watching the film crew scramble to overcome whatever internal and external obstacles that arise or are thrown their way, as well as the townsfolk's varied reaction to the cinematic intrusion on their normally staid lives. While none of that's completely novel in concept or amazing insightful in its observational moments, for the most part it's quite entertaining and enjoyable.

While much of that stems from Mamet's efforts, the terrific cast he's assembled, along with their often inspired, if occasionally low-key performances, are what make the film a pleasure to watch. Not to leave anyone out - since most of them are quite good - some of the most enjoyable performances come from a handful of the performers.

Among them is Alec Baldwin ("Outside Providence," "The Edge") as the film's big name star who has a penchant for underage women; Rebecca Pidgeon ("The Winslow Boy," "The Spanish Prisoner") - Mamet's real life wife - as the only one in town who seems to have her head on straight; Sarah Jessica Parker ("Honeymoon in Vegas," TV's "Sex and the City") as an actress known for appearing naked in her films who suddenly has an epiphany not to do so anymore; and David Paymer ("Bounce," "The Hurricane") as a producer known for his strong-arm tactics.

Making Hollywood and small town America look both fun and funny, Mamet may not have fashioned a side-splitting, laugh a minute comedy, but he has delivered a smart and witty satire on both worlds. While it could have been a bit funnier for my tastes, "State and Main" is still quite enjoyable. Besides, any film that gets in a great and unintentionally timely jab at the Electoral College this close to the recent bungled election process certainly gets my vote. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 20, 2000 / Posted December 22, 2000

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