On The Aisle
By Tony Macklin
‘State of Play’
I’m not Oliver Twist. I don’t need “more, please.” My first portion was satisfying, thank you. “State of Play” is like a very filling meal. As it appears to end, one sighs with satisfaction. It was an exciting thriller with a viable resolution. Time to leave the theater and consider the intriguing, relevant themes.
But wait. There’s more. The meal has been reheated, and thrown back slapdash on the screen. We had rare roast beef; now we have lumpy gruel. And the ending ultimately gives one indigestion. I don’t need out-of-the-blue plot twists. Finding out Tony was bad in TV’s “24” was too much already.
In the original “State of Play,” which was a six-part series on British telly, the ending was more reasonable, but since the American version focuses on the reporter (Russell Crowe) beyond all else, the ending seems tacked-on, unlike its British source.
What is especially irritating is that the relevant themes get trumped by the insipid ending, which leaves them dissipated and unimportant. A really good movie is emasculated.
Until the dithering ending, ”State of Play” has energy and purpose. The best thing in the movie is Russell Crowe. In his last movie, “Body of Lies” (2008), Crowe gave perhaps his least effective performance. He put on a lot of weight, but the role was still thin.
In “State of Play,” the old Russell is back … thoughtful, intense, clever, a battering ram of commitment. When he’s in top form, as he is in “State of Play,” Crowe is as artful as any actor in movies. He even makes a simple handshake unique.
Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, an old school journalist on the Globe, a Washington newspaper. It is a role that John Simm had in the original British series; Simm recently portrayed Sam Tyler in the stellar British TV version of “Life on Mars.”
Cal drives a 1990 Saab and has a cubbyhole of an office with a blizzard of old newspaper clippings on the wall. The newspaper environment is wonderfully messy and cluttered. He is called “this geezer” by his editor (Helen Mirren). Cal, resisting the money-grubbing “modernization” of the paper, blurts, “I’m a journalist not a publicist.” But he is a dying breed.
The rumpled but astute McAffrey finds that a murder he is covering somehow may be connected to a bigger case, which involves his college friend Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who is becoming a powerful congressman.
The young female researcher for Collins dies in a subway (accident? suicide?), and the frenzied contemporary media pursues the story of a possible affair between the married congressman and his assistant, which threatens to derail crucial senate hearings.
Joining McAffrey, who refuses to cheapen the story, is Della Frey (Rachel McAdams), a young blogger at the paper. She initially is interested in the juicier aspects of the story, but under Cal’s wary tutelage she embarks on a course of real journalism.
Together they probe beneath the glossy surface of the story, and find that PointCorp, a mysterious but powerful security company, may be involved.
McAdams is fine as the young, ambitious blogger. The fetching Kelly Macdonald, “The Girl in the Café” (2005), played the part in the British version.
Affleck is suitable as the vulnerable congressman. Jason Bateman has a memorable, flashy turn as a corrupt publicist. Mirren is strong as usual as the intrepid editor who is struggling with the encroachment of profit-seekers.
Kevin Macdonald, who directed “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), creates a crackling thriller, until it collapses on the shoals of contrivance.
Paul Abbott, who created the British TV series, has produced the American film. He has three veteran screenwriters to update and Americanize the British telly show.
The original corporate Big Oil is now Private Security (Halliburton). The media world now pits the ascendancy of gossipy bloggers and profiteers against the rapid descendancy of newspapers heading toward oblivion. These are crucial themes that should not be trumped by plot twists.
One sly visual element is that in the film the gaseous Chris Matthews and the gaseous Lou Dobbs appear on TV rendering news. Equal pomposity.
The writers, Michael Carnahan, who wrote the lackluster “Lions for Lambs” (2007), Tony Gilroy, who wrote the lackluster “Duplicity” (2009) and Billy Ray, who did the script for the piquant “Shattered Glass” (2003). They are an uneasy trio. Too many bakers spoil the pretzel. The ending thwarts them all.
After the calculated plot twist, Macdonald ends the film with a credit sequence showing machinery printing a newspaper. It is one last look at a fading industry. It is unadorned homage. “State of Play” shows us that homage is lasting, but plot twists aren’t.