What can one expect these days from a David Mamet film? Right from his directorial debut House Of Games, the writer-director was preoccupied with the schemes of con-artists, hustlers and grifters. Hence the raised eyebrows when Mamet adapted The Winslow Boy and retained the claustrophobic Edwardian setting of Terence Rattigan's play. Now he's back on home soil, with a surprisingly light-hearted satire on Hollywood film-making and small-town quaintness.
The idea of a movie crew wreaking havoc in a tranquil backwater was explored back in '86 with Sweet Liberty, and an air of familiarity hangs over the situations and characters in State And Main: hence the starlet who suddenly develops qualms about nudity, the naive playwright who's ignorant of film's commercial side and the director who "shoots first and asks questions later".
The film works best when it's tossing out throwaway gags about product placement (how do you advertise a dotcom company in a period costume drama?), film grosses, lying being the "gift of fiction" and the absurdity of the electoral process (very topical). Less successful is the life-imitating-art plot strand of the second half, as the idealistic author (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose work on The Old Mill is concerned with the "search for purity," must resolve a personal, moral dilemma when called to testify in court.
There's some fine comic playing from the likes of William H Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker and Alec Baldwin, while Hoffman invests his romantic leading role with a touching dignity - though opposite him the arch line-delivery of Rebecca Pidgeon is horribly misplaced. Yet State And Main never replicates the spirit of classic comedies like Sullivan's Travels to which it has been compared. Preston Sturges, you feel, would have given this tidy farce some welcome anarchic exuberance.
Mamet's on cruise control rather than full throttle, sending up the absurdities of Hollywood and smalltown mores in this enjoyable if predictable comedy. Superb acting from Macy and Hoffman helps compensate for some mechanical plotting.