"State of Play" delivers enjoyable entertainment, few messages
The new thriller State of Play comes at a time when public trust in U.S. politicians is at an all-time low and print journalism is facing an upheaval from online news choices. With that in mind, State of Play, based on a BBC series from a few years back, wants to be the new All the President’s Men though its messages lack relevance of that film. Taken as a message movie, it doesn’t work, but it’s otherwise an entertaining, tense thriller that will likely find an audience due to its A-list cast, who with the exception of one crucial miscasting, performs ably.
A petty thief is gunned down in a Washington D.C. alley and a Congressman's assistant falls in front of a subway - two seemingly unrelated deaths. But not to sarcastic, brash newspaper reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), who smells conspiracy waiting to be uncovered. His unruly past is connected to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) and his wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn), a high-level friendship that makes things a little thorny when covering the story. With the help of ambitious young rookie writer Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), Cal uncovers clues that lead him to a corporate corruption full of D.C. insiders, low-life, and assassins. But as he seeks the truth, the relentless writer must choose between risking his life and friendships and selling his soul to get the ultimate story.
State of Play is an enjoyable but flawed thriller that starts out well when it digs for clues then falters a little by the time it reaches a predictable climax that rings false with the rest of the film. Director Kevin Macdonald, who guided Forest Whitaker to an Oscar in The Last King of Scotland, helms the proceedings well, though it all has a familiar All the President’s Men tone to it. The pairing of the disheveled McAffrey and green around the ears Frye seems too Woodward-Bernstein-ish, with Mirren handling the foolproof Ben Bradlee-editor role with aplomb. Anyone could’ve played this smallish role (Alan Arkin comes to mind) but she lends it a much-needed credibility.
The interplay between Crowe, Mirren and McAdams contribute to the better parts of the movie, and along the way Macdonald and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan (who wrote another self-important D.C. thriller, Lions for Lambs) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton and the recent Duplicity), add some intensity, particularly one engaging scene in a parking garage that shows that even a tough guy like Crowe can get scared. But even with that, as a whole it lacks a certain mystery and power, even in its supposed (and a bit confusing) twist at the end.
Yet the biggest flaw in State of Play isn’t its lack of relevance or its familiar tone, but the crucial miscasting of Ben Affleck in a key role. Edward Norton, who was originally to play the role, would’ve made a more memorable impression than the blank, shallow stares and youthful presence that Affleck provides. In other words, he’s simply not believable, and it affects the importance of the movie itself, especially the implausibility of the whole Crowe-Affleck friendship. The boorish slob that Crowe plays here would hardly be an acquaintance, much less a close friend, with someone as corrupt and boyish as Affleck.
Though Crowe, Mirren and McAdams all turn in solid performances, the more memorable performances in State of Play come from a few reliable supporting players. Jason Bateman has the most fun as a slimy PR guy and key player in the case; Jeff Daniels shades a corrupt congressman with a perfect twinge of hypocritical attitude, and the always-lovely Robin Wright Penn makes the most of an underwritten, nearly non-essential role, of the wife of Affleck’s character, who also has eyes for Crowe. (Blink - and you’ll miss the one, brief scene with recent Oscar nominee, Viola Davis, of Doubt.)
State of Play is too self-important, too long and too flawed to make a truly, great movie. It fails to make a strong connection with the notions of politics and unbiased journalism, but it’s a decent thriller with an A-list cast with enough forgettable but enjoyable popcorn entertainment to fill a couple of hours away from the real world.
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