David Mamet: The '00s
State and Main (July 28/01)
David Mamet's unique style of writing dialogue has been properly put to use in many dramas and thrillers (Glengarry Glen Ross and The Spanish Prisoner, to name his two most successful), but rarely has he ventured into the realm of comedy. In his capacity as a director, his only other comedy was the little-seen Things Change. Now he's gone for laughs again with State and Main, a light-hearted endeavor revolving around the behind-the-scenes efforts to shoot a modestly-budgeted drama (William H. Macy stars as the film's director, while Philip Seymour Hoffman steps into the shoes of the production's increasingly exasperated screenwriter).
State and Main doesn't possess much by way of plot, but it does have a group of very talented actors portraying quirky and interesting characters. Some of these actors (Macy, Alec Baldwin, Charles Durning) are Mamet veterans, and subsequently spout his mannered dialogue with ease and effectively make it sound realistic. Even the Mamet virgins - Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Stiles, David Paymer - are equally adept at working with Mamet's notoriously clipped sentences.
But the problem with State and Main - as well-acted and written as it is - lies in its relative lack of plot. Mamet instead relies on wacky misunderstandings and isolated incidents to propel the story forward. And it works - for a while. This is, however, an awfully minor complaint for a film that features such fine actors doing some of their best work (Hoffman, in particular, is especially strong in a lead role).
Spartan (March 11/04)
Spartan is, as one might expect from a film written and directed by David Mamet, packed with genuinely unexpected twists. Unlike Heist, his last effort, Spartan is going for a more realistic vibe; hyper-stylized instances of dialogue that undeniably sound great but make little sense are absent (ie "when he goes to bed, sheep count him"). That's not to say Mamet's completely abandoned his penchant for having cool characters say cool things (ie after breaking the arm of a suspect, who complained likewise, a character slams said arm hard and mutters "now it's broken"), but it's clear that his main interest with Spartan lies in creating a story that's plausible (to a certain degree; it is still a Mamet movie). The plot is best left unrevealed, but the basics involve an agent played by Val Kilmer who's assigned the task of recovering a kidnapped woman. The trajectory of the film's storyline is impossible to predict, as it changes every 20 minutes or so. However, Spartan never quite recovers from the abandonment of the opening sequences - involving agents played by Ed O'Neill and William H. Macy - which is easily the most effective portion of the film. And the conclusion is surprisingly sloppy - a bad guy essentially explains the entire scheme before getting shot - as though Mamet couldn't quite think of a way to wrap up this exceedingly complicated story. Still, the movie is always entertaining and Mark Isham's score is appropriately haunting - but The Spanish Prisoner remains Mamet's most effective film.
As anticipated , David Mamet's Redbelt unfolds in as unconventional a manner as one could possibly imagine - as the famed playwright often seems to be going out of his way to subvert the viewer's expectations. There's consequently little doubt that the storyline's impossible-to-predict trajectory - which takes 180 degree turns virtually from reel to reel - plays a significant role in the film's ultimate success, although it's just as clear that Mamet does occasionally rely on simplistic misunderstandings to facilitate the various twists. The movie casts Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, a martial arts instructor who finds himself forced to abandon his principles following a series of personal setbacks (ie an ill-fated encounter with Tim Allen's seemingly down-to-earth movie star Chet Frank). It goes without saying that Redbelt benefits substantially from its terse, downright singular dialogue, as Mamet has peppered the proceedings with precisely the sort of off-the-wall yet entirely memorable conversations that one has come to expected from the filmmaker. And while there's little doubt that the movie effectively keeps the viewer on their toes for the duration of its brisk running time, it becomes increasingly difficult to overlook the inclusion of several admittedly overwrought plot developments (ie the path that drives Mike to his third-act decision is, to put it mildly, kind of convoluted). That the whole thing starts to drag somewhere around the one-hour mark probably doesn't help matters, although there's certainly no denying the strength of the flat-out thrilling finale - with the end result a sporadically uneven yet consistently engaging effort that'll undoubtedly please Mamet's devoted fans.