With State and Main, David Mamet has, against all odds, made a movie about moviemaking that bears not a trace of either cinephilia or intentional self-reflexivity. That is, unless the central dichotomy of a manic, jaded director and a depressive, idealistic screenwriter indicates that Mamet’s mirror has two faces. Callous auteur Walt Price (a Spacey-esque William H. Macy) and put-upon scribe Joe White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) descend upon sleepy Waterford, Vermont, to film a period drama called The Old Mill, not least because the town supposedly boasts an old mill. But the brochure they’re reading is decades out of date, and so seem the natives—pliant, impassive yokels all, who speak in aphorisms whittled down to Mametian abstraction (Codger #1: “It takes all kinds.” Codger #2: “That’s what it takes? I always wondered what it took”). A few get smothered by the smallpox blanket of Hollywood corruption: A teen (Julia Stiles) initiates an affair with the leading man (Alec Baldwin), while a politico (Clark Gregg) exploits the scandal for career gain, especially since he’s lost his girlfriend (Rebecca Pidgeon) to unlikely homewrecker Joe.
Indeed, many of State and Main‘s machinations hinge on sexual vengeance, but only Baldwin gets regular play (he thoughtfully conducts all incriminating conversations in his hotel hallway). Joe’s the real prince, though, defending an infantile actress (Sarah Jessica Parker) when a reptilian producer (David Paymer; the year’s most noxious anti-Semitic stereotype comes courtesy a Jewish writer-director) tries to bully her into onscreen nudity. Revealing an improbable taste for irony, the grateful starlet promptly strips for befuddled Joe, in a sequence so disjointedly assembled that you know even Mamet isn’t buying it.
Much of the smugly reactionary State and Main strikes a similar balance between the adolescent and the puritanical. Mamet’s ideal moral universe is predicated on nostalgia, so when the electricity goes out and Pidgeon lights a kerosene lamp, she’s made to say, “The past comes to our rescue once again.” The interlocking hijinks and homespun non sequiturs attempt homage to Sturges, but surely Preston would have inverted Mamet’s scenario, in which our hero doesn’t have to confess an inconvenient truth but gets brownie points for wanting to. The narrative ends up a fatuous triumph of Machiavellian thought and action; State and Main is a Hollywood satire as cynical and thickheaded as its supposed targets.