– Summary –
Director : Kevin Macdonald
Cast : Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman, Michael Berresse, Robin Wright Penn, Jeff Daniels, Maria Thayer, Rob Benedict, Harry Lennix, Viola Davis.
Year Of Release : 2009
Length : 128 Minutes
Synopsis: A cynical Washington reporter uncovers a twisting political conspiracy when he investigates the murders of three innocent people.
Review : Considering the caliber of cast and crew on this film, it should have been better. With an ending sure to confuse the hell out of everyone, State Of Play is a good try from director MacDonald, but ultimately doesn’t please.
Dependable political thriller starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, meanders through various red-herrings and left turns, before utterly confounding the viewer with a second rate resolution that is anything but. State Of Play seems on the surface to be fairly standard thriller material, three or four seemingly unrelated things ending up becoming part of a much larger web of intrigue, however, the final twist and resolution will have even the hardiest genre fans scratching their heads. Nervously wondering if they should admit that they too have no idea what just happened.
Crowe and Affleck lead a pretty decent cast, including Helen Mirren in a thankless role as the cliched harried newspaper editor, and Rachel McAdams as the junior reporter working with Crowe on the story of a lifetime. Crowe plays hardbitten journalist Cal McCaffrey, who begins to piece together the strands of a vast political conspiracy involving his former college roommate, Congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck), when three people are gunned down in cold blood on the streets of Washington. Not long after, a young researcher for Collins office, Sonia Baker, is pushed in front of a train, leading to the revelation that Collins and Baker had an affair. This sets in motion the events of the film, which seek to uncover the truth in the labyrinthine plot involving a company seeking a contract with the US military, a lone-wolf assassin picking off people involved in the contract negotiations, and the rapidly devolving marriage of Collins and his wife, played by Robin Wright Penn.
The film is based upon the BBC TV series of the same name, although condensed here into a two hour film, essentially the crux of the story is kept, by screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan. Directed with a steady, if laboured, hand by Kevin MacDonald, State Of Play seems quite complex on the surface, and yet maintains a relative ease of viewing until the final act. Crowe mumbles his way through yet another complex character, the reporter who perhaps suffers from a conflict of interest in that his job is contradictory to his relationship with his friend Collins, and Collins’ wife Anne, with whom it turns our McAffrey has a lot more history with than we are first led to believe. The permutations of the diabolically clever script are kept bubbling along throughout the film, MacDonald trying to create a sense of realism and doco-drama tone; he fails, but it’s a worthy effort. Instead, the film becomes less murder-mystery and more convoluted pretzel, with twist upon twist simply confusing and beffudling the audience. Affleck overacts his way through many scenes yet again, his jut-jawed Congressman completely unrealistic in it’s presentation, and considering that Robin Wright Penn looks like she could be Afflecks mother, this stunt casting fails to appeal on screen. Rachel McAdams proves yet again why she is such an in-demand actress, her portrayal of the “cub” reporter (do they even still use that term?) a little bit Jimmy Olsen-ish, and a lot of fun to watch her sparring with McCaffrey along the way. McAdams holds her own, and is on a level pegging with Crowe here. Poor Helen Mirren merely phones in her role, a role that is far beneath her standards and resume, I got the feeling she was simply doing this for the money.
It’s great to see names like Harry Lennix (from the Matrix sequels, here portraying a frustrated detective trying to solve the murders) and Jeff Daniels as a slimy fellow Congressman bob up as well, but the biggest plus for this film is the major cameo from Jason Bateman, as a source of information on the case. Bateman is equally arrogant and childish, before becoming a screaming heap of paranoia when the pressure is applied for him to provide damning information. I like the way Bateman’s career is heading, and if he can keep on producing roles like this, he’s going to go much further before we see the last of him.
Directorially, MacDonald is a fairly interesting man; his Last King Of Scotland was a powerful cinematic entry and won an Oscar for Forest Whitaker. Here, though, he seems woefully out of his depth, seemingly unable to handle the complex and intricate conspiracy angle while trying to shoehorn in the personal, intimate character references the film so desperately needs. The slip-shod script (character-wise) never really allows us to enjoy or appreciate any of the cast’s work, Crowe especially undone by some shoddy dialogue and poorly executed development of his character beyond the generic. I was left lamenting how good this film might have been had it perhaps focused less on the characters and perhaps more on the story, or vice versa, but it tries to do too much of both to the ultimate detriment of everyone. It’s neither a thrilling thriller or an intelligent drama, it’s a muddled effort to do both and it fails. MacDonalds ability to develop tension is almost good, but only one scene in the film does what it should: the assassin hunting McCaffrey in the car-park sequence, which is quite Hitchcockian in it’s feel and tone. But other moments which should stand out are murky and indecipherable at best, the plot twisting so hard at the final hurdle the film completely derails and you feel you’ve wasted the last 120 minutes.
Musically, Alex Heffes has produced a dynamic and simplistic score, perfectly suitable and workmanlike to the film yet without elevating it beyond mere mediocrity. MacDonald seems incapable here of marrying the visuals and the music together as far as mood goes, and it’s this off-kilter approach that also brings the overall theme of the film undone. Shot in and around Washington, the film retains a sense of realism that seems also out of balance with what the director is trying to do: the gritty, urban tones are no match for the Paul Greengrass shaky-cam style that often distances the audience from the action. Unlike Greengrass, MacDonald is unable to bring the zip and zing needed to the film from the hand-held style he uses.
Overall, State Of Play is a fairly humdrum affair, trying so much to be a better film but ultimately being undone by the one thing you need to get the viewer onside: characters you can grow with. The script shows a detrimental lack of depth, and this prevents any real sense of enjoyment in either the actors or the characters they play. Which means the film is only superficially good to watch: if you think about it too hard, or watch it a second time, you’ll enjoy it less. For non-discriminating viewers only.