You may want to revisit this profanely hilarious Hollywood satire from writer-director David Mamet (The Winslow Boy) just to catch the zingers the audience often drowns out with laughter. But don’t think the creator of such white-hot plays as Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow and Oleanna has lost his edge. Laugh all you want, but there is no such thing as Mamet-lite.
When a Hollywood film crew, led by director Walt Price (William H. Macy), descends on a small town in Vermont to film The Old Mill, a historical epic, comic terror follows. It turns out the town’s old mill burned down in 1960. Young screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) nearly gets fired for thinking such details matter. Walt has bigger problems to consider. His star, Bobby Barrenger (a never-funnier Alec Baldwin), is getting too fat for his nude scene and has a thing for fourteen-year-old jailbait (“Everybody needs a hobby”) that the town’s teen princess, Carla (Julia Stiles), would like to exploit. The leading lady, Claire Wellesley (a sly, sexy Sarah Jessica Parker), refuses to go topless even though, as one wag cracks, “she takes off her shirt to do a voice-over.” That’s when producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer is ruthlessly funny) jets in from the coast (“I’m flying over sheep,” he says in horror) to “cool the broad down.” After threatening Claire and her agent (“This bimbo is gonna be doing a donkey act on public access”), Marty bribes Claire with $800,000 — money raised by trying to fit a product plug for bazoomer.com into a film that’s set in 1895.
Mamet revels in this teeming nest of vipers. Ditto the actors. Macy and Paymer make a sublime team of scam artists. And Hoffman strikes sweet romantic sparks with Rebecca Pidgeon (the offscreen Mrs. Mamet) as Ann Black, a sassy Jean Arthur-ish townie. By the end, the movie people and the locals get along, in Walt’s words, “like dykes and dogs,” with folksy Vermonters dishing about inflated grosses and per-screen averages. Hollywood corrupts absolutely, and Mamet turns the toxic process into the year’s best and smartest comedy.