April 16, 2009

300 Words About: State of Play

I've been itching a little bit to write more words about several new releases, but in writing 100-word reviews for MSPIFF films for the Strib a couple weeks ago, I'm still "thinking small" about crafting reviews (plus I'm perpetually short on time this spring). This will probably remain true for a while since I'm going to see about 10 movies a week for the next two weeks, but as with the films I highlighted from the Beyond Borders Film Festival two weeks ago, I hope to expand some of the MSPIFF write-ups/festival reports to full reviews before select films have their wide releases later this year.

In the meantime...

Why do we trust star investigative reporters to organize details when they can't even find a stapler on their desk?

Like a paper clip that's twisted one too many times, State of Play eventually snaps apart, unable to regain its form and sending you into your desk drawer, or rather film library, for a new conspiracy thriller. It's certainly taut and tense, but almost to its own detriment. From the jarring opening scene to the roaring climax, we're hardly given a moment to stop and consider what these characters are doing and, more importantly, why. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) but heavily influenced by the typically overambitious writing of Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity), it's full of memorably witty "gotcha" lines, but empty, for the most part, on thought-provoking insights.

Attempting and mostly succeeding in masking the blubbering writing (the characters are mostly relegated to shouting in newsrooms or mumbling into cell phones) is a high-caliber cast highlighted by Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, and, incredibly, Ben Affleck's mid-Atlantic/Philly accent. Less excellent but still decent are Russell Crowe (who evidently is embracing his newfound role as Hollywood's favorite "misunderstood yet resolutely righteous" schlub), Rachel McAdams, Viola Davis, and Robin Wright Penn, the last three of whom all deserved more screen time.

Moving on, I must declare that I'm becoming increasingly intolerant of manipulative, Michael Clayton-ish percussive sound effects and musical scores. Chases through dark alleys and parking garages are - or should be - harrowing enough without ominous musical blasts (evidence: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). If the characters are well developed and the urgency of their plight is properly illustrated, crutches like shaky cameras and menacing music can actually end up detracting from the suspense, in my opinion.

I haven't seen the BBC miniseries on which State of Play is based, but I can see why it received critical and popular acclaim, as it touches on controversial and relevant issues involving everything from the death of newspapers to the birth of mercenary private defense contractors. But therein lies the problem - State of Play ends up only "touching" on these topics, compromising in-depth examinations of them for the sake of cheap suspense and a happy ending. It should say something that instead of discussing these controversial issues, my friends and I ended up talking about the overreaching coincidences and gaps in logic.

Call it a decent little thriller hiding a missed opportunity.


  1. I'm going into this with one with trepidation. The original 5 hour mini-series was incredibly good, and it sounds like my fears with this remake may be true. It's tough to cram 5 hours of material into a brisk 2 hours. The original gave its plot and characters space to breathe. They discover a lead, follow it, and end up in a dead end. Pick up another lead, and follow that one. It was intricately plotted and felt very real. I'll still see this one, though. I'm a sucker for any political thriller.

  2. Yes the orginal BBC series is a television masterpiece. It was introduced to me by Allan Fish, who recently reviewed it for WitD:


    But I am hardly surprised you have mixed feelings here; I was honestly expecting the worst. Hence, when you say the Michael Clayton-ish sound effects are lame and redundant and the conspiracy thriller devices leave you cold or unimpressed, I can only say that this genre has worn itself thin. The BBC series is definitive.

    Needless to say, excellent work here.

  3. Well both of you guys have seen the series so your expectations/standards are going to be higher than mine. That said, this was still better than I expected. Joseph you make a good point about the cramminess - kind of what I meant by describing it as "blubbering". It's almost Mamet-ish at points because they have to get so much info in to each conversation.

    Thanks, Sam, and I think the Gilroy version of this genre has worn itself thin. It's one thing to write witty dialogue, but when it's empty or TV-like, I'll take a pass. There are some nice lines about newspapers/bloggers, though...


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