Sunday, September 6, 2009

"State of Play"=generally OK

I'm no student of world cinema, but I know that Americans, at least, tend to love a good conspiracy theory on film. When a country is founded on insurgency and rebellion, it's natural for a strain of mistrust to remain encoded in the cultural DNA for generations to come. It may be less voluble from time to time, but it'll never go completely out of style.

State of Play, starring Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, and Ben Affleck, is 2009 model of the Hollywood paranoid thriller, and it sports a good bit more craftsmanship than most 2009 movies and actually feels like a throwback to when little things like plot and acting mattered a bit more.

It's not a bad movie overall. It didn't wow me, but I also didn't feel cheated. You can tell the movie was striving to be something that was a little out of its grasp. At the end of it all, you may very well be bothered by a lingering sense that everything doesn't wrap up quite as neatly as the filmmakers think it does, but that could also be because of editing.

Herewith are some points about the film, which I suppose will require me to divulge a few mild spoilers, but nothing about major plot points -- so if you're still considering a rental, you're safe.

WTF does the title mean? If anyone actually explained it during the movie, they slipped it right by me. Now, I know this was based on a BBC series of the same name that was apparently quite good, so maybe that show offered some explanation. But here, my suspicion is it just kinda sounded good so the producers figured audiences would you give it the benefit of the doubt. It does have a certain ring to it. The Parallax View. The Manchurian Candidate. State of Play. Yeah.

And you know, I dislike a movie that decides to be thuddingly obvious about its title, like Crash (where Don Cheadle explains the significance of the title in the first two minutes) or As Good As It Gets (where Jack Nicholson says it to the camera).

So maybe this ambiguity is really a plus for the movie.

Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck as college roomies. Russell Crowe actually has about eight years on Ben Affleck in real life, and though they've made some attempt to make Affleck look a bit older in the movie, the idea of him and Crowe as contemporaries is a bit of a stretch.

But that's not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that the entire relationship, which is central to the movie, is a complete contrivance. One goes on to be a hotshot congressman, one turns into a shabby, sorta-skeevy journalist with bad hair and a gut. College roommates taking divergent paths after college isn't really that remarkable, I guess, but it just feels too neat and I don't really know why the characters had to have that much of a background. Crowe just could've been the old-school DC journalist who won Affleck's trust somehow, and when the big plot thing that happens actually happens and Affleck seeks out a journalist, Crowe could be the guy...OK, I'm thinking too much.

Oh wait - they had to have a relationship because there's this bit about Crowe having had an affair with Affleck's wife back in college that...really doesn't mean anything to the movie, except to add a layer of emotional complication that...doesn't provide any payoff and could've just as easily have been left out. Are we supposed to think that Robin Wright Penn would still be attracted to Russell Crowe even after he's put on thirty pounds and looks like he hasn't cut his hair since Woodstock? Hm.

On the plus side, about romances - they resisted the urge, at least in the final cut, to work in any sort of romantic angle between Crowe and McAdams, which was a good move. A lesser movie would've almost surely had them hook up at some point, or at least kiss. Now, Crowe seems to bond with the young reporter a little too easily, but that was at least tolerable.

In the final analysis - there aren't any really bad scenes in the movie, and there are at least a couple of good ones, including one pretty nice and suspenseful stretch that works even if it's hard to believe that Crowe's overweight desk jockey would be able to elude a trained killer. And the plot has some nice momentum and keeps you guessing.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 7 or 7.5, which these days is actually pretty good. It's like being a .290 hitter in baseball -- not outstanding, but capable. If you've got four or five dollars to spare and you want a couple of hours' entertainment, consider State of Play worth a rental. I realize that's faint praise, but faint is better than none.

You might think the movie's a dog from the blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical run, but I chalk that up to 50% marketing, 35% not enough violence or sex, 10% people not being able to figure out exactly what happened at the end, and 5% people who still give a shit that Russell Crowe threw a phone at some guy once.

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