Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: To honor the life and career of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, we single out some of our favorite of his performances.
State And Main (2000)
Like all great actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman found unexpected aspects of every character he played, and even his darkest roles were often laced with jagged shards of pitch-black comedy. Still, he was so palpably intense that few filmmakers thought to cast him in parts that were explicitly meant to be funny. Likewise, David Mamet is thought of primarily as a dramatist, not a comedian. It turned out to be a perfect fit, however, when Mamet made Hoffman the romantic lead of State And Main, his change-of-pace comedy about a tiny, idyllic Maine town invaded by an obnoxious film crew. As novice screenwriter Joseph Turner White, who’d made his reputation as the author of a renowned play entitled Anguish, Hoffman lampoons artistic self-seriousness without a trace of condescension. White’s screenplay, The Old Mill (“Does it have be an old mill?”) is patently absurd, choked with overripe metaphors, yet the character ultimately emerges as heroic, and even gets the girl (Rebecca Pidgeon). It’s the most lovable Hoffman was ever allowed to be.
Technically, State And Main is an ensemble piece, with plenty of choice lines allotted to the pompous director (William H. Macy), the vain movie stars (Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker), the venal producer (David Paymer), and the small town’s smarmily ambitious politician (Clark Gregg). But it’s the offbeat courtship of Hoffman’s Joe and Pidgeon’s goofy local, Ann, that nimbly recalls the screwball classics of such luminaries as Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. In the movie’s most uproarious, yet weirdly touching scene, Ann catches Joe in his hotel room with another woman; despite being innocent of any wrongdoing, he attempts to improvise a ridiculous lie about why she’s completely naked, then winds up blurting out the truth, which sounds even more ridiculous. When Ann accepts his excuse without a qualm, he can’t help but follow up with, “Wait—you believe that?” (“I do if you do” is her ideal reply.) The whole scene plays beautifully as farce, with Ann initially wandering blithely around the room while Joe frets about where the naked woman is hiding, but the astonished, wondering look on Hoffman’s face at the end, when Joe realizes that he’s been truly accepted, is pure, uncut pathos. He was always able to catch us off guard.
Availability: State And Main is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, or to rent or purchase through iTunes.