David Mamet‘s film, State and Main (2000), concerns contretemps and obstacles between a moviemaking team and the citizens of a town called Waterford, Vermont, where the team are fashioning a film. The characters captivate: William H. Macy‘s agitated director, Alec Baldwin‘s hugely popular actor and nymphet-loving pervert, Rebecca Pidgeon’s bright, affable bookstore owner, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s diffident scenarist, and many others.
Like the witty dialogue, the plot is fun except that a glaring defect springs up when Clark Gregg‘s pushy prosecutor tries to build a statutory-rape case against Baldwin when he certifiably has no case at all. Gregg—his character—wouldn’t be that stupid. But something else bothers me more: Mamet, in truth, has nothing new to tell us about corruption or Hollywood folly, and that is entirely what his film is about. All State and Main can do is dispense airy cynicism—well, that in addition to showing us that somewhere deep inside Mamet he is a glorifier of the past. Not merely deep inside, of course, he is a conservative.
Mamet’s 1999 The Winslow Boy worked (as did his Phil Spector). The present film almost works, but not quite. Even so, it’s one of the most enjoyable failures I’ve seen, and if you can put up with airy cynicism you might enjoy it too.
If you like the film comedies of the silent era, you should try the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle short, Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915), directed and starred in by the comic actor.
Arbuckle is forcefully funny and entrancingly winsome as the harried Fatty, who is driven to maniacal behavior by his shrewish mother-in-law. Worse than she, however, is the monster of Misunderstanding, arising in the minds of not only the two women in Fatty’s life but also the jealous husband (Edgar Kennedy) of Louise Fazenda. Fazenda? Yes. Married to movie producer Hal Wallis, she was as gifted for slapstick farce as Arbuckle.
There might be too much reliance on the jealous husband’s mad gun violence in Tintype Tangle, but it’s a zippy, lurching jewel all the same. And only 20 minutes long.
(Available on the DVD, The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.)
Notwithstanding he made the repelling Four Weddings and a Funeral, it helps that DB was directed by the talented Mike Newell, who, together with scenarist Paul Attanasio, has borrowed for their enterprise the true story of Joseph Pistone, an undercover FBI agent who fooled and eventually ruined a formidable crime family. A regrettable fact here is that Pistone, known by the fake name Donnie Brasco while undercover, is an almost completely unsympathetic figure, and Newell and Attanasio never quite catch on to this. True, they wish to convince us of Donnie-Joseph’s potential for meanness and violence—the traits we see time and again in the mobsters he is working against—but they push it too far. Happily they know what they’re doing, though, when they show Pistone at home, or at the marriage counselor’s, with his wife Maggie, and we see the ugly strain the undercover work is having on their marriage. Everything about this is on the mark.
They know what they’re doing in other areas as well. After quarreling with and being slapped by Pistone, Maggie (Anne Heche) is shot by Newell in closeup before a slow dissolve removes her from the screen and replaces her image with that of the streets where Pistone does his job; there is a certain poignancy to it. The contrast between the gangsters’ nasty doings in New York City and their amusements on the beach and at a motel swimming pool in Miami leaves its mark on the mind, as does the excellent sequence in which Al Pacino, Michael Madsen, and another fellow, all gangsters, have just been told by the FBI of Donnie’s being an undercover agent and they are uncertain and bewildered as they stand outside a pool hall.
The acting is thrillingly effective—that of Johnny Depp (Pistone) less so, however, than that of Pacino, Heche, and others.