In any other era, "State and Main" would have been an extended inside joke. The comedic story of a film crew that goes on location in a tiny Vermont town (only the bigger maps, we're told, mention it at all), the movie is chock full of self-referential show-biz broadsides supplied by writer/director David Mamet. Among his pearls of knowledge: An associate-producer credit is what a secretary receives when an actual raise is out of the question.
Who, one wonders, is going to get such a joke? How about an entire nation of media junkies whose slavish ingestion of the shop talk in Entertainment Weekly and Premiere somehow has them convinced that they, too, are in the motion-picture business?
Its target audience established, "State and Main" is free to roast its corps of Hollywood pros, who invade Waterford, Vt., to complete photography on a picture titled "The Old Mill." A period piece set in 1895, the film is "about purity," a synopsis its creative team repeats like a mantra.
Toeing that patently cynical party line is director Walt Price (William H. Macy), who keeps his shoot on track by dispensing ego-massaging sweet talk and the occasional venomous threat. His leads are Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), a matinee idol with a fatal attraction to underage girls, and Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), a self-important starlet who hijacks the production by refusing to perform a nude scene that's in her contract.
We expect better from the citizens of Waterford: Their mayor (Charles Durning) is even named George Bailey, after the virtuous Capra hero. But these local yokels have their own vices to indulge, greed chief among them. "The Old Mill" crew has already been thrown out of a New Hampshire town for unspecified reasons, and if they want to stay in Waterford, they may end up paying through the nose for the privilege.
It's classic screwball fare, in which nearly every character's motives are impure. Driving the story is the push-and-pull between a backward people beguiled by the promise of Hollywood money and the creative professionals who not-so-secretly deem them beneath contempt. (If you lived in Orlando around the time of the arrival of Universal Studios, the scenario will seem awfully familiar.)
A Mamet product all the way, "State and Main" has a smooth, snide tone. The witty absurdities fly like Scud missiles: Keep your ears open for a short-but-sweet deconstruction of the adage "It takes all kinds." But unlike Mamet's tangentially themed "Wag the Dog," which was a hoot until it drowned in its own nihilism, "State and Main" builds to a satisfying moral dilemma. Its particulars shouldn't be spoiled, but it involves the relationship between Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the writer of "The Old Mill," and Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon), the proprietor of a Waterford bookshop. They're the two least reprehensible personages in the film, and the attendant implication -- that literacy equals moral superiority -- is among the healthier lies a movie can tell.
Occasionally, "State and Main" amuses us with plot points and secondary characters that prove to go nowhere. But the wide focus allows for strong ensemble work. Pidgeon, the least known of the film's many Mamet regulars, is a particular delight, showing her mettle as a spunky, big-eyed comedienne.
As a director, Mamet remains close to his theatrical roots. His camera only moves when necessary, typically remaining stationary as actors walk into the frame to deliver their lines, then exit the "stage" to make room for the next clash of inflated egos. It's good, old-fashioned fun, its form as traditional as its observations are trenchant.