"State of Play" is an investigative procedural involving inter-political espionage, murderous double-dealing cover-ups, and the fight of newspaper journalists to get to the bottom of potentially explosive truths. Not really fresh topics, per se, but the film, directed by Kevin Macdonald (2006's "The Last King of Scotland"), is a well-made one. Despite its absorbing narrative early on, it also becomes too cute by a half and too convoluted by a whole, ultimately relying on a seemingly never-ending string of climactic plot twists and tacked-on revelations to ride the proceedings out. By the end, the viewer wishes he or she cared more about what has just been watched.
When young, vivacious political reseacher Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) is killed after being hit by a metro train, the press is quick to label it a suicide. However, when it is uncovered that she was the mistress of married congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a much bigger scandal ensues. Stephen has evidence that Sonia didn't kill herself, and the deeper his ex-college roomie and Washington Globe
reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) digs, the more certain he becomes that someone was out to kill her. Teaming with resident blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), Cal's investigation thickens when evidence points to Sonia's connection to security contractor PointCorp and the separate murder of a thief the night before.
"State of Play" efficiently juggles a large ensemble of characters, each one with ties of varying degree to the central mystery laid out by screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (2007's "Lions for Lambs
"), Tony Gilroy (2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum
"), and Billy Ray (2005's "Flightplan
"). The plot, complex in its weaving if not satisfactory in its outcome, is never less than at the forefront of scene-to-scene exposition. Without tangible room to breathe and permeate, the human figures onscreen are either treated with a shady undercurrent that stunts their internal growth, or are merely used as pawns on hand to explain the myriad story developments. As a result, certain colorful supporting players, such as pansexual PR guy Dominic Foy (Jason Bateman) and acid-tongued newspaper editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), are memorable on their own, but do not feel as if their lives exist beyond the screenplay they are in.
The cast is full of familiar faces, some more comfortable than others at filling out their respective roles. Russell Crowe (2008's "Body of Lies
") receives the leadthat of journalist Cal McAffrey, who struggles to separate his job with past personal ties with Stephen Collinsand is adept at building an earnest, if flawed, figure guilty of his own set of indiscretions. His work-cum-buddy relationship with Della Frye is about as close to human as the film allows, even with Rachel McAdams (2005's "The Family Stone
") hindered by a second-fiddle part. As on-the-line congressman Collins, Ben Affleck (2009's "He's Just Not That Into You
") struggles with how much emotion he should bring to his role, and more often than not overplays things. As Collins' cheated-upon wife Anne, Robin Wright Penn (2007's "Beowulf
") looks bored and hasn't much to do but show concern on her face. With only two extended scenes, Jason Bateman (2008's "Hancock
") is intense, funny and full of life, stealing the show from everyone else. And, as the ill-fated Sonia, Maria Thayer (2008's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall
") leaves a lasting impression with only a few key moments of screen time. Were Thayer given a little more substance to work with, the fight to reveal what led to her death might have had greater impact.
For all of its sumptuous, frequently rainswept location shooting in Washington, D.C., and for all of its tightly-edited cursory intrigue, "State of Play" has a mechanical aura to its storytelling that leaves one feeling indifferent. Exposing the crooked side of the U.S. capital is an age-old gimmick, not provocative, innovative or eye-opening. More timely and subtle (yet also more effective) is director Kevin Macdonald's cogent comment on the changing tide of print media and the modern-day decline in demand for daily city newspapers. Even as sales are down and their jobs are on the line (at least as they know them), Cal and Della tirelessly continue fighting the fight for truth and justice. They find them by the end credits of "State of Play," but the road in getting there is a tedious onefor the journos, yes, but also, finally, for the unenlightened audience.