By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Save for one twist, one turn and one cliché too many, “State of Play” makes for fairly engrossing entertainment of the nail biting kind. But while perching at seat’s edge as reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) tries to find out if the killer is a military contractor, a congressman or Jeff Daniels’s majority whip, you really aren’t buying.
It’s more like, “OK, so it isn’t ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995), but I’m in the mood for a whodunit-intriguer…so I might as well go along for the ride.” Your equivocating fealty is paid back in kind. Via scenes a mite too dark and cloistered, there are thrills and spills. But alas, dear reader, you’ll find no genuine, mind-blowing, conspiratorial chills.
Trying to make up for the shortcoming as well as an Academy Award-caliber actor can, Russell Crowe gloriously immerses into the persona of a newshound who has devoted his entire being to the cause of divining truth. It occasions to perhaps excuse him—calling it artistic temperament—for tossing that telephone at a NYC hotel employee back in 2005.
We’re equally forgiving of the extravagance in seediness and disarray that the art director unabashedly exhibits in decorating the journalist’s cubicle at the Washington Globe. But that’s only a microcosm of his real piece de resistance, the apartment …a veritable study in clutter and untidiness. Surely he must be a great reporter.
The stereotype is a big part of it. Derring-do and the fight for justice aside, Crowe’s character etches a swell little homage to the dying breed he portrays. Doubtless, when he started his career Cal drank, smoked and was never without a cup of Joe. Though those trappings of the trade are now mostly gone, they are nonetheless engraved in him.
But hark, the living statue’s heir to preserving truth, justice and the American way has already alighted from Cyberspace. She texts. She knows from Facebook and Twitter. She is Rachel McAdams’s Della Frye, the new face of journalism, probably a Yale or Berkeley grad, and currently the copy-pumping blog gal at the Globe.
Naturally, Cal disparages the sprout when introduced by editor Cameron Lynne, a salty Brit played by Helen Mirren. Typically, he notes, Della has alluded to a sexual scandal in connection with the murder he’s investigating. So what? She knocks out copy all day for less money, retorts Lynne. Ah, the money thing…all the news we can afford to print.
We sort of wish that, instead of the cold splash of reality, the newspaper saga might emulate the gambol of the Depression era chestnuts. Y’know, someone like James Gleason leans out into the newsroom and yells, “I don’t care what it costs. Get me the story on that missing heiress.” Gable gets him to also throw in two weeks off with pay.
But truth be told, this end-of-an-era aspect far outweighs in credibility the also-ran, mystery angle of the film. Crowe and McAdams as the old and new of it forge perceptive deductions and manage a smart, on-the-run discourse about passing the profession’s gavel…all without overplaying whatever chemistry romantics wish to infer.
The pace is unmistakably familiar, as are the plot mechanisms. Borrowing from “All the President’s Men” (1976), director Kevin Macdonald employs a fast-clicking, deadline-conscious unfolding of leads and side business. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay even has its own version of Deep Throat, a disenchanted employee of defense contractor, PointCorp.
But the labyrinthine script lays out few culprit options. Instead, it homes in on a comfortable number of suspects and then proceeds to alternately persuade and dissuade us of their guilt. Chief among them in a rather good thespic turn is Ben Affleck as Congressman Stephen Collins who, by the way, is Cal’s best friend from college.
And just in case that’s not enough soap opera contrivance and coincidence, know that the wife (Robin Wright Penn) Collins might be cheating on has long been McAffrey’s heartthrob. Various other links are tossed into the brew to both amuse and confuse, including a few jaunts up some blind alleys we’d be better of without, thank you.
However, dragged out from under a rock as yet another consolation for the stumbling and mumbling we’re asked to ferret through, the machinations suspected of some military contractors receive an edifying muckrake. It’s always nice to see the First Amendment at work, and proves a good diversion while the convoluted tale struggles to unravel itself.
Otherwise, the movie’s strongest attraction is its performances. Indeed, Crowe and Co. can’t save director Macdonald’s effort from its cryptic indulgences any more than they can rescue the newspaper business from the death throes so well portrayed. Still, that they seem to be trying to do just that in “State of Play” is practically a recreation unto itself.
“State of Play,” rated PG-13, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Kevin Macdonald and stars Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck. Running time: 127 minutes
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