What the grownups are into these days ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, June 20, 2009

What the grownups are into these days

State of Play
My rating:

Counter-programming: the practice of releasing a movie at a time when every other movie currently playing is wildly different from yours. E.g. a smart, mature thriller like State of Play when cinemas are inundated with the likes of Blood: The Last Vampire, Drag Me to Hell, and Terminator Salvation. I like smart thrillers, but there's been little buzz on this one; the few reviews I've read of it say it's good but unremarkable. Still, I picked this film for my next review so that someone who's tired of killer robots and stuff blowing up and blood and gore might read this, and not overlook a movie they might enjoy.

I provide a valuable service, don't I? Yes I do. You're most welcome.

A political scandal befalls Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) - his aide is found killed, suspected of committing suicide, and it is revealed that they were having an affair. Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), a reporter for the Washington Globe newspaper, investigates the possibility that shady military contractor Pointcorp, whom Collins is investigating, may be involved. Aided by his paper's blog writer Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) and pressured by his editor (Dame Helen Mirren), McAffrey's interest in the story is more than strictly professional - the Congressman is an old friend, and Collins' wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) an old flame. As they get closer to the truth, they begin to realize that billions of dollars - "wrath of God money" - are at stake, which is enough for some parties to commit murder.

Director Kevin Macdonald previously helmed The Last King of Scotland. One of the credited screenwriters is veteran Tony Gilroy, of Michael Clayton and the Bourne trilogy. It's based on a highly-acclaimed BBC miniseries. And you've got Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren starring. All these names spell quality cinema, and for the most part none of them disappoint. The dialogue is smart and snappy, and the plot moves at a pace meant for people who pay attention. The subject matter - private military contractors with all the skills and resources of the U.S. military, but claiming allegiance only to the almighty dollar - strikes a chord in this day and age of Blackwater and its misadventures in Iraq. The film is at its best when watching McAffrey and Frye at work; apparently, the ability to charm and bluff your way into other people's confidences is what it takes to be a good journalist. I don't know if this is true, but it's certainly fun to watch.

The fact that this is a 2-hour film made out of a 6-hour TV miniseries shows at times. McAffrey's complicated relationship with both Collins and Anne seems to have suffered the most editing. It feels like there's a wealth of undercurrents and conflicting emotions between all three, and the movie only gives us the outcomes without really explaining the motivations. At one point, Collins accuses McAffrey of investigating the story merely to redeem his guilt at having had an affair with Anne. This would've made for terrific characterization, but we don't really see much of it. Some of this might have to do with Crowe's performance - he does a solid job, but someone who's more of a character actor might've done better. During the film's sole action scene, we don't quite buy him as a schlubby journalist being menaced by a cold-blooded killer. This is a guy who played a Roman gladiator, after all.

The rest of the cast do solid jobs. Rachel McAdams holds her own amongst Crowe and Mirren - her scenes with Crowe provide most of the film's quota of humour and wit. Mirren herself is, as always, terrific. So is Robin Wright Penn, who seems to know more of what's really going on between her character and Crowe's than the movie tells us. Affleck, like Crowe, gives a competent but unremarkable performance - it won't atone for Daredevil and Gigli, but he's getting there. Jason Bateman (of TV's Arrested Development) makes a surprising appearance - I honestly hadn't read anything about him being in this movie, and his character is a hoot.

On the whole, "competent but unremarkable" just about sums up the movie. It's good, but it doesn't really stand out amongst other examples of its genre. Then again, this whole genre - the smart, serious thriller that caters to adults and not teenage boys - is pretty damn rare, even outside of Hollywood's summer blockbuster season. So if loud, flashy and dumb is not your cup of tea, this is what you should spend your moviegoing money on. (And if loud, flashy and dumb is your cup of tea, perhaps this film might upgrade your tastes a little.)

NEXT REVIEW: Departures
Anticipation level: looking forward to it