“Shoot first — ask questions afterward.” That’s the motto on the lucky pillow carried to location by director Walt Price (William H. Macy). This is actually the second choice of location, a last minute substitution for the original small New England town in Vermont. That site did not work out, partly because the town was asking for more money, but partly for another reason that Price will only reveal in a whisper. They have now come to Waterford, New Hampshire, in part because of a brochure about the town’s historic old mill, which would be the perfect setting for one of the movie’s most important scenes.
The cast and crew arrives and takes over the town’s small hotel and they are almost ready to go when they find out that the old mill pictured in the brochure burned down in 1960. Price is unflappable — he tells screenwriter Joe White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to rewrite the scene. The stunned look on White’s face may be explained as the camera pulls back to reveal the title of the movie they are about to shoot: “The Old Mill.”
Meanwhile, Price and the movie’s producer, Marty Rossen (David Paymer), have to cope with an array of problems from charming the town’s mayor into giving them a permit to shoot on Main Street to persuading starlet Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) to do a nude scene and keeping Hollywood hunk Bob Berrenger (Alec Baldwin) away from underage girls. Joe White, beguiled by Ann Black, the local bookstore owner (Rebecca Pidgeon), has to keep producing rewrites on demand. And the cinematographer has to figure out a way to shoot around the antique stained-glass window in the town’s historic firehouse.
Writer/director Mamet clearly relishes the chance to skewer some of the people he has met on his previous movies, but it is done with a light, even romantic, touch. White and Black find a way to communicate despite the chaos around them. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, Mamet turns the most well-established conventions of farce upside down as, for once, a character behaves sensibly and trusts another character instead of believing the circumstantial evidence. Then, just to make sure we don’t take anything for granted, he has another character do the same thing and be completely wrong.
Mamet does not make this a story of city slickers taking advantage of country yokels or of crafty country people triumphing over the corrupt city folks. Both sides have a range of characters with a range of motivations and moral compasses.
White keeps saying that his movie is about purity and second chances. So is this one, with a lulu of a second chance for one character who really needs it. Consistent with Mamet’s duality throughout the movie, other characters who do not deserve second chances get them, but those are probably just “a second chance to make the same mistake again.”
Parents should know that one character is attracted to underage girls and has sex with a girl who, despite clear indications that she approached him, is too young to legally consent to sex. There are other sexual references, including a character who takes off all her clothes as a way to seduce another character and a discussion about whether Claire will do a nude scene, as provided in her contract. Characters drink and smoke and use strong language. Many make moral compromises that parents will want to discuss with teens who see the movie.
Families who see this movie should talk about the characters’ priorities and choices. Walt and Marty just want to make the movie, and will do anything to get it done. White is trying to keep his story’s integrity (and his own). Claire takes what appears to be a moral stance, but is willing to back down for more money. Another character backs down from an apparently moral stance for money and a chance at power. White is given a choice between his honor and his career — what helps him decide? Families might want to talk about some of the characters’ names. Why is the director named “Price?” Why does the mayor have the same name (George Bailey) as the Jimmy Stewart character in “It’s a Wonderful Life?” What about the names “White” and “Black?”
Families who enjoy this movie might also like Mamet’s version of “The Winslow Boy,” also starring Pidgeon (Mamet’s wife). They will also like the cult classic, “The Stunt Man.” Be sure to stay throughout the credits (“2 animals were harmed in the making of this movie…”) and check out http://www.oldmillmovie.com/ for a hilarious parody of movie promotional websites.