State Of Play


Reviewed by: Richard Mellor

State Of Play
"State Of Play remains a cerebral, rather than physical, thriller."

It wasn’t broke, so they didn’t fix it. Even with the loss of thrilling London locales, and substitution of John Simm for a potbellied and ponytailed Russell Crowe, State Of Play the American film is really very similar to State Of Play the UK TV series that it adapts. And yet, as with cheeseburgers or The Office, the American version just isn’t quite so good.

Initially though, it’s near-identical. Many character names are retained from Paul Abbott’s BBC drama: once more the plot has journalists Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) working a story centred on Cal’s old friend, hotly-tipped politician Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). After linking the suspicious death of Collins’ assistant to the murder of a lowly bagsnatcher, they thrillingly uncover shadowy, malevolent corporations and government corruption.

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Like Abbott’s addictive episodes, this equally paranoid remake by Kevin MacDonald – he of The Last King of Scotland success – has twists and turns in almost every scene. Its writers (including Tony Gilroy of Michael Clayton directorial fame) have performed wonders in packing so much of Abbott’s labyrinthine plot into two still-breezy hours. And despite the Hollywood stardust present, they’ve ensured State Of Play remains a cerebral, rather than physical, thriller.

There are action scenes, but no apocalyptic fireballs or the stuff of stunt doubles. For once, the heroes on show have more brain than brawn, and pens for swords, while villains are silent and unknown, frightening through the depth of their social and business powers rather than via firearms or fisticuffs. A verbal duel with Jeff Daniels is about as aggressive as Cal ever gets, despite the obvious jeopardy his curiosity courts.

Newspapers are also an endangered species in MacDonald’s whirling world, just as in our real one. While Cal laboriously fine-tunes and prevaricates over a story for the fictional Washington Globe, Della (an internet blogger in this reincarnation) fires off copy for the much more current website. Much is made of the impending death knell for traditional journalism, with editor Helen Mirren constantly bemoaning print media’s lack of profitability.

Mirren’s is a rather cartoonish role: a Sun-reading Jane Tennyson who utters lines such as: “I want to know who she knew, who she blew and the colour of her knickers” in her commonest accent. The soft humour of Bill Nighy’s small-screen version is sorely missed. And though likeably spirited as Della, McAdams isn’t a patch on Kelly Macdonald either. She’s too pretty and too young, and lacks the beautiful sincerity and swarthy tights that the Scot lent to the role.

Affleck does okay as the hotshot politico, but has little screen-time: the film is instead centred on Crowe. And unfortunately, although Cal decries the loss of journalistic integrity, bleeds sources and gleefully cuts corners, there’s ever a sense that Russell himself couldn’t give two hoots. His Cal is just a tad too laconic and laidback. Not to mention stupid: in one of a few undercooked subplots, watch as the portly pencil-pusher resists Anne (Robin Wright-Penn) – an ex-flame and now Stephen’s jilted wife – who inexplicably wants him back.

Cal’s carb-happy journalist diet is one of many awkward clichés: we also have the classic two-characters-start-to-speak-at-once scene (“You go.” “No, really, you go.”), a young-buck and elder-curmudgeon duo in Russ and Rach (not quite the Friends pairing) who eventually form grudging respect, and even a Poirot-esque denouement where realisation floods over the chief investigator’s face but we must wait five minutes before being filled in.

Back to the cheeseburger analogy. If you’ve seen and loved State Of Play the show, will you like the simplified, celluloid, American version? Why of course not – you’ll be watching an achingly familiar, poorer version of something you hold precious. Few of us like new takes on art (or meat sandwiches) we already cherish, after all. But for new fans, this is a perfectly rollicking thriller well worth the hiked entrance ticket. Unless the TV series is cheaper on DVD, that is.

Reviewed on: 23 Apr 2009
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State Of Play packshot
An investigative reporter finds his loyalties conflicted when a story involving murder, blackmail and conspiracy centres on his old friend, now an up-and-coming Congressman.
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Read more State Of Play reviews:

Stephen Carty ****
Jeff Robson ***1/2

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Michael Berresse, Harry Lennix, Josh Mostel, Michael Weston, Barry Shabaka Henley, Viola Davis, David Harbour, Sarah Lord

Year: 2009

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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