Thursday, July 21, 2011

State Of Play (2009)

Crowe Carries This Little Thriller


- We have seen murder mysteries, journalists trying to get the big story, and corrupt politicians before in film history - and State Of Play (2009) meshes all of these sub-genres into one pretty good film. The first half of the film leads the audience to believe that they are in for a great thriller but the second half lets the film down and it becomes a not-so-great thriller by the time the end credits begin to roll. I don't know.... Maybe my expectations are just too high because Russell Crowe has not been in a bad film since hitting superstardom with L.A. Confidential back in 1997? Despite its shortcomings State Of Play is an engaging and recommendable film.

The streets of Washington D.C. sure are dangerous and scandalous (and Marion Barry isn't even around anymore): one simple alley-way murder leads D.C. journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) into the scandal and conspiracy that surrounds his old friend and current Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). This is not your run-of-the-mill Lewinski-type scandal however; murder is commonplace and there is no one around to trust.

While the plot succeeds in being a good MacGuffin for a great Russell Crowe performance and character, I am not buying the story in its entirety. The story's entire sense of danger and evil presence comes from a corporation called PointCorp, which is trying to make a lot of money overseas in the War on Terror and domestically with its own attempt at privatizing Homeland Security. I am sorry, but in an era of the US Government buying up one third of the US auto industry and trying to take over US healthcare, I have a hard time buying into this idea of a "privatization of Homeland Security" that the film presents.

The underlying threat in State Of Play is a bit of a stretch but the film's script suffers further from indefensibly bad writing. First of all, the film's ending is poorly rushed with an awkward tugging on the heart strings cheese-fest ending that just had to be the studio's idea. If it was not the studio's idea, shame on the handful of writers who wrote the flick. The final "twist" feels tacked on too even though, when you stop and think about it, the "twist" cannot be an unimportant tack-on because it is so integral to the overall plot! Odd....

If the poorly-written ending was not bad enough, the pointless ragging on Crowe's Cal character that occurs throughout the film makes the script look worse. Cal is constantly having his motives, objectivity, and friendship called into question for just about everything he does in the film even though it is pretty darn clear that this character assassination is complete bull shyte. Cal knows how to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of D.C. press and politics and may be a bit emotionally removed sometimes but he is also clearly motivated by his friendship with Collins and by what is right in general. Cal is a good man and it is frustrating to watch him being picked on by the writers in a desperate attempt to add depth of character in an event and mystery driven plot.

The bulk of the performances seen in the film are good rather than great - or are just flat-out non-entities. Big-time Hollywood stars Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels, and Robin Wright Penn show up and probably allowed the studio and distributor to sleep better at night but they do not really turn in performances worth their seven-figure fee. Ben Affleck is up to his usual standard of banality and weakness in his role as Stephen Collins, no surprises here. All his whining about possibly entering into the world of politics better be doubly false, as he is one terrible and irritating congressman here in this film! Jason Bateman is about the only supporting star who throws around any real weight, terrifically playing against type, and, even though Michael Berresse is not much of a recognizable face, he gives one of the better performances in the film as the positively creepy Robert Bingham.

Having said all of that, there are a couple of film-carrying positives that make State Of Play a very worthwhile film. Director Kevin Macdonald mishandles some scenes that end up cheesy or rushed but, overall, he does a great job forming an engaging thriller. State Of Play is visually splendid with excellent cinematography, art direction, and excellent scene framing and is intensely atmospheric with a lot of very tense scenes - no small thanks due to Macdonald.

However, it is pretty clear that Russell Crowe is the only truly great thing about the film. Crowe has played a lot of very different roles in the past, but he is often cast as tough hardy men who would prefer to stay home with the family but, motivated by duty or the severity of circumstance, will beat the living tar out of the bad guys. Here in State Of Play, Crowe successfully down-plays against type in his role as Cal McAffrey, a good man whose duty to his friendship and what is right take precedent in everything that he does. Cal is probably frightened more often than he is stone-cold confident, his veteran wisdom overcoming any type of brashness or hopes at heroism. Russell Crowe is good enough on his own to get the audience invested into the character and film as a whole and is enough of a reason to recommend State Of Play.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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