03 February 2014

"Hey, did you see the grosses for Gandhi 2?"

The very sad news today of the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman in New York, aged 46, led me to revisit my favourite film this evening. In David Mamet's 2000 screwball comedy, State and Main, Hoffman plays a rare romantic lead role as a tortured playwright (sample play title: 'Anguish') whose heartfelt and sensitive historical drama script is being filmed as a big screen epic entitled The Old Mill in the backwater town of Waterford, Vermont. The process of turning a finely-tuned artistic work into box-office gold is a shock to White's sensibilities, and the peculiarities of the leading actors - deftly played by Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker - cause no end of problems for the producers. Hoffman's character is buffeted on all sides by the uneasy compromises required to make it in the cynical movie business.

Central to the success of State and Main as a romantic comedy is the winning relationship that develops between White and local Waterford bookseller Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon, who is Mamet's wife in real life). The dialogue and growing bond between White and Black (aha!) is sparklingly witty and wry, harking back to the finest screen comedies of the 1930s and 40s; State and Main may be considerably gentler than Howard Hawks' 1940 classic His Girl Friday but to my mind it contains every bit as much nuance and verve in its breezy courtship. In one priceless scene White is discovered in a hugely compromising - but entirely innocent - situation with another woman, and stammers his ludicrous - and totally true - explanation:

Joseph Turner White: You believe that?
Ann Black: I do if you do.
Joseph Turner White: But it's absurd.
Ann Black: So is our electoral process. But we still vote.

Much of my adulation for this film, and I suspect for many other fans, is the hilarious depiction of the venal world of film-making, chock-full of superstar egos, rampant insincerity, highly flexible morals and a single-minded determination to preserve profit margins to the detriment of artistic merit. Chief among these mercenaries is the two-faced wit of The Old Mill's director, played with puckish charm by William H Macy, who delivers a swag of State and Main's most memorable lines. Indeed, the film boasts a marvellous supporting cast, particularly a young Julia Stiles as the calculating local teen Carla who plans to use leading man Bob Barrenger's unfortunate predilection for young women to her own advantage. (There's also an early screen appearance in a small, uncredited role for The Office's John Krasinski).

State and Main, like my previous favourite film, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, is a film I first saw at the cinema and loved so much on first viewing that I have been reluctant to ever sully it by re-watching it. I wanted to maintain the memory of such big screen perfection in the hope that I would never spot any minuscule flaws in a second viewing. But having watched it once more, I can only redouble my admiration for such a charming, wonderful little film. It's all good, every bit of it. There's a great twist near the end, which I won't reveal. The soundtrack - by Theodore Shapiro, who now has 54 film composer credits - is subtle and appealing, and to show my devotion I even own two copies of it. Even the end credits are worth watching; one (fake) notice exclaims 'Only 2 animals were harmed during the filming of this motion picture', while the last text on the reel reveals that 'a complete list of this film's associate producers is available upon written request', harking back to an early scene in which an associate producer credit is defined as 'what you give to your secretary instead of a raise'.

Perhaps it's not a hugely popular film in the scope of cinematic history, but it's still my favourite by a long way, and by default it's therefore my favourite Philip Seymour Hoffman film. Apologies for the poor quality on the trailer - that's all there is available on Youtube.

See also:
Movies: My top 10 movies of 2013, 30 December 2013
Movies: Mr Iturbi will see you now, 29 December 2013
Movies: Film Festival 2013 roundup, 12 August 2013
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