Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review: State of Play

Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, Russell Crowe

It’s hard to write about the new Russell Crowe thriller State of Play without giving away major plot twists; it’s even harder to think about the feature film and compare it to the original BBC miniseries, and not come up feeling movie audiences are being cheated a little bit. On further reflection, it feels like the movie audience got cheated at least a little whether they see the original TV version or not. The silver lining is, if you can enjoy thrillers where it’s all about plot, plot, plot, a la DaVinci Code, you should come away from this feeling like you’ve been well-entertained.

As State of Play opens, two seemingly random murders take place. One victim is a street kid, the other is an assistant to a US representative played by Ben Affleck, whose emotional reaction to the assistant’s death unfolds before a televised committee hearing. The media assumes - correctly - an affair has been taking place. They also assume the death was a suicide, but we, the audience, are clued in otherwise.

From there we get two hours of spandex-tight thriller that displays the relationships between newsmakers, news reporters, the now corporation-directed, business nature of reporting, and how everyone involved plays the other for their own ends, pushing a forward a narrative that’s occasionally something like the truth in the process. (There's also a romantic homage, as undercurrent, to the newspaper business in general, from the outrageous sloppiness of the newsrooms to the final film sequence depicting how a newspaper is made and distributed.)

Everyone involved is working at least two angles. The dead girl was in love with the congressman she researched for, investigating a privatized military business (think Blackwater Security). The congressman was, in addition to other things, using his longstanding relationship with reporter Cal (Russell Crowe) to leak the slant he wants the story of the girl's murder to take. (Looking at the two actors, it seems impossible to picture Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck as dorm-mates, let alone attending the same school in the same decade. The actors are eight years apart in age, and it shows.) Cal is trying to protect his friend’s political career from blowing up while, at the same time, trying to get the story right and play down a previous affair of his own with the congressman’s wife, inscrutably portrayed by Robin Wright Penn.

It was no mean feat to take a six-part series that never had much fat in the first place and whittle it down to two hours without losing any major plot points and for that the screenplay writers, including Tony Gilroy (of Bourne fame, if that gives you an idea), deserve a lot of credit. The cheat is the characters and acting suffer badly as a result. Everyone is perfectly watchable; there's just not that much room for character dialog. Visual shortcuts and archetypes operate as a substitute. Cal keeps a bottle handy and Dixie cups to pour the booze in, therefor he must be one of those, old-school types keepin' it real, man. Rachel McAdams' blogger-cum-cub reporter has her ideals and her lack of patience to run on and not much else. Helen Mirren isn't quite crusty enough to be Bill Nighy or Jason Robards in drag, but she's not far from it, either. Affleck is impossible to get much of a vibe on, at all.

My other problems with State of Play are these: the final plot twist comes so swiftly and with so little warning that it's as if the movie deliberately pulled its punch after spending so much time on one specific line of attack. Also, due to so much someone's-watching-you camera narrative, Russell Crowe’s Cal seems to be in jeopardy so often that by the time the final bullets fly, after that ultimate plot-twist is unraveled and so much of the film's air seeped out in its harried denouement, there’s no real reason to care any more.

127 minutes that go by quite fast.

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