Russell Crowe, in 'State of Play'

Dir. Kevin Macdonald
(2009, PG-13, 128 min)
★ ★ ½

I have an affection for State of Play that makes me want to bump it up that extra half star, but nagging reservations that won’t let me. It starts as an intelligent, unpretentious, straight-ahead thriller about the kind of hard-boiled investigative journalist who Gets Too Close To The Story, and its gradually unraveling conspiracy is exciting, but over time it starts to give in to laziness, and its plot undergoes one back flip too many before I’ve just lost interest.

Russell Crowe, soft in the middle and bedraggled with long hair, stars as Cal McAffrey, an old-fashioned investigative reporter for The Washington Globe who has been using the same computer for eighteen years and driving the same car for just as long. He’s unkempt; in his opening scene he’s driving to the scene of a homicide, munching on Cheetos and tossing the wrapper into his rat’s nest of a backseat. He has a friendly/adversarial relationship with the detective on the scene, Donald Bell (Harry Lennix), and we can guess pretty well their roles in this story: Cal is the veteran journalist resisting the changing times, and Donald will complain that Cal is getting in the way of his case.

In much the same way, we can peg pretty much every character on screen, and that’s one of the film’s problems. There’s Rachel McAdams as Della Frye, who blogs for the newspaper but may as well be writing for Tiger Beat as far as Cal is concerned; she’s the young, ambitious, but lightweight cub who finally gets her hands dirty on real investigative work. There’s Helen Mirren as Cameron Lynne, the officious newspaper editor, who of course stands in Cal’s way at every turn and complains about deadlines and diminished circulation and beating other papers to the story even if it means crippling the story. And there’s Ben Affleck as crusading Congressman Stephen Collins; he has the most dimension of any character, but that just means he’s subject to the most plot twists.

The film is based on a six-hour British miniseries from 2003. I haven’t seen it. Perhaps in that amount of time these characters would have had room to grow beyond their respective archetypes, but compressed into a 128-minute feature, they stay mostly confined to their boxes.

Stephen was college roommates with Cal, which strikes me as odd because Crowe is eight years older than Affleck and looks it; Stephen must have skipped some grades. The congressman is married to Anne (Robin Wright Penn); there is an underdeveloped love triangle between them and Cal that stretches back to their college days and contributes nothing to the story; trimming it from the screenplay might have left room to expand some of those hurried investigative montages — knocking on doors, making phone calls, hitting dead ends — into actual scenes.

Stephen comes under scrutiny when his top aide, Sonia Baker, winds up dead; the details of the investigation are slick and paranoid and cool. Were they having an affair? Did she commit suicide? Did it have something to do with a committee investigation Stephen was spearheading? The story leads us to PointCorp, a private defense contractor that may have greater ambitions than just hiring out for foreign conflicts. A few fragments of investigations that seem unrelated at the outset (though of course we know they’re not) start to dovetail, and I liked the accumulation of evidence that suggests deeper and deeper and deeper corruption. But the details are many, and they come fast in a narrative that often feels overly truncated. It holds interest up until that last wonky twist, which I suppose is as plausible as all the other ones but feels like a twist for twist’s sake. Maybe it would feel less so if the characters felt like characters and not just extensions of the plot.