Contradictory as it sounds, Hollywood is the kind of place you have to despair of to truly love. Where else can a director caught in an untruth say, "It's not a lie, it's a gift for fiction," or a producer insist, "I made $11 million last year and I don't like to be trifled with"? And where else, for that matter, can a horse be a legitimate candidate for an associate producer credit?
     True, these are not real people, or a real horse, but as pungent characters in writer-director David Mamet's completely delicious show-biz satire "State and Main," they might as well be. An occasional worker in Hollywood for nearly 20 years, Mamet knows where bodies are buried and how to use the corpses to bring a smile to your face. "State and Main" is a quintessentially wised-up insider comedy, ideally cast and filled with sharp writing from start to finish (a line about associate producers at the tail end of the credits is especially worth waiting for).
     It may be cynical, but, in another paradox, "State and Main's" story of what transpires when a major studio movie comes to a small New England town may be the warmest film Mamet has yet made. Someone once said that complaining about Hollywood is like a boxer coming out of the ring and saying, "That guy hit me." Mamet doesn't moralize, he just records it all with a can-you-believe-this kind of bemused glee.
     Like the real estate office setting of his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Glengarry Glen Ross," Hollywood is ideal Mamet territory. Both worlds are filled with people who bend words to their particular uses just as they bend the rules of morality in an attempt to cope with increasingly desperate situations.
     In fact, "State and Main" has a lot of Mamet's trademark characteristics, including numerous plot twists, all presented in a looser, more relaxed form than we're used to. Even his clipped, pungent dialogue isn't delivered in quite as rigid a cadence as the director usually insists on. And maybe because the movie business brings its own particular darkness and devilry with it, Mamet has felt freer to make his vision more amiable than it's ever been.
     Accentuating the comedic aspects is the terrific farce situation Mamet the screenwriter has come up with. Fast pacing and intricate plotting, with endless complications bringing on recriminations, vendettas and worst-case scenarios mean that the invention and the energy never flag.
     This kind of manic, antic storytelling brings to mind the classic 1940s comedies of Preston Sturges, a writer-director whose influence here Mamet acknowledges. Like Sturges, Mamet has increased the laughter by his adroit casting of a large and expert ensemble. Alec Baldwin, Charles Durning, Clark Gregg, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Patti LuPone, William H. Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, David Paymer, Rebecca Pidgeon and Julia Stiles, take a bow. You've earned it.
     Until the bucolic fictional hamlet of Waterford, Vt., had the movie business come to town, the only thing the town and its most ambitious politician Doug MacKenzie (Gregg) ever got worked up over was the new traffic light at that State and Main intersection.
     Then the cast and crew of "The Old Mill," mysteriously ejected from neighboring New Hampshire, enter the picture. First to arrive is director Walt Price, who likes what he sees. Beautifully played by Macy, Price is the pragmatic facilitator with a solution for everything. He's the good cop who could placate an aroused polar bear, who knows what to say to everyone, even sending a few words of atrociously pronounced Yiddish to his killer producer Marty Rossen (Paymer).
     An attorney who just happens to travel with the statutes on statutory rape, Rossen is the bad cop, the kind of guy who says, "Don't flinch when I'm talking to you." His mandate is dealing with big problems, like placating the town's mayor (Durning) and his social-climbing wife (LuPone). And coping with whatever crises his stars will inevitably precipitate.
     With female lead Claire Wellesley (Parker), it's a reluctance to take off her shirt. Yes, she signed a contract agreeing to do just that, but without an added $800,000 she's threatening to walk.
     Her co-star Bob Barrenger (Baldwin), who shows up with the "I'm just here to do a job" swagger of the world's top box-office attraction, turns out to have a weakness for underage girls. "Everyone," he says by way of shameless explanation, "needs a hobby." Naturally, the presence in town of a fetching and sharp-eyed teenage waitress (Stiles) doesn't escape his notice.
     Expected to be creative in the midst of this chaos is the awkward, woebegone writer Joseph Turner White (Hoffman), who starts off on the wrong foot by (a) being the writer and (b) immediately losing his typewriter.      Fortunately for him and the film, White gets a big break when he makes a connection with local bookstore owner Ann Black (Pidgeon), who's sane, sensible and smart with a pithy sense of humor thrown into the mix. Ann is the emotional center of the film, someone who makes the fictional world of Waterford not only a great place to visit, but also someplace we actually might want to live. And that, for a David Mamet setting, is saying a lot.


State and Main, 2000. R, for language and brief sexual images. A Green-Rienzi Production in association with El Dorado Pictures, released by Fine Line Features. Director David Mamet. Producer Sarah Green. Executive producers Alec Baldwin, Jon Cornick. Screenplay David Mamet. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. Editor Barbara Tulliver. Costumes Susan Lyall. Music Theodore Shapiro. Production design Gemma Jackson. Art director Cark J. Sprague. Set decorator Kyra Friedman. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Alec Baldwin as Bob Barrenger. Charles Durning as Mayor George Bailey. Clark Gregg as Doug MacKenzie. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Joseph White. Patti LuPone as Sherry Bailey. William H. Macy as Walt Price. Sarah Jessica Parker as Claire Wellesley. David Paymer as Marty Rossen. Rebecca Pidgeon as Ann Black. Julia Stiles as Carla Taylor.