April 16, 2009 / 3:57 AM / 10 years ago

Journalist plays cop in hard-to-believe thriller

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The peril in building a murder-mystery thriller around a journalist is that a reporter is not a cop.

Actor Russell Crowe attends the premiere of the movie "Revolutionary Road" at the Mann Village theatre in Westwood, California December 15, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Yet just about everything Russell Crowe does in “State of Play,” as D.C. reporter Cal McAffrey, relates to police work, not journalism.

He visits an autopsy room, withholds evidence, grills a witness in a safe house, comes under fire more than once and targets the perp. He seldom has deadlines or writes anything.

The highly implausible “State of Play” makes for a reasonably good edge-of-your-seater as long as disbelief is suspended regarding everyone’s professional duties. Reporters, cops, politicians — no one behaves as they should. Perhaps that’s what writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Billy Ray and director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) have in mind, though: that the roles of the media, government and police have grown fuzzy as everyone is motivated more by self-interest and self-preservation than any search for the truth.

The film, which Universal releases Friday (April 17), looks like a solid mid-range performer at the box office. It offers nothing we haven’t seen before in terms of chases, intrigue and betrayals, so for all its A-list cast and production values, the film comes off as routine.

The script is based on a 2003 BBC miniseries written by Paul Abbott, which took place in London, and the transition to the U.S. capital works surprisingly well. Today’s bloggers nicely imitate Fleet Street, and a politician with zipper issues and concerns over private defense contractors are virtually ripped from the headlines.

Both productions feature these key ingredients: The seemingly random deaths of a young junkie shot execution style and a legislator’s attractive research assistant in a subway accident that might be a suicide. The deaths prove to be related, and a reporter takes advantage of — exploits? — an old friendship with a legislator and his wife to get insider information. It’s then a race among a news outlet, the police and government minions to ferret out the truth, though at least one of those estates probably wants the truth buried.

Crowe’s Cal went to school with rising Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), knows his wife (Robin Wright Penn) better than a friend should and has an editor (Helen Mirren) under pressure from new corporate bosses. Consequently, there are so many conflicts of interest and ethical breaches contained within his every move that one ceases to keep track.

The film pays lip service to the fading power and resources of an old-fashioned newspaper but prefers to wallow in nostalgia for pre-Internet days. Cal is paired with what once would have been a “cub” reporter but is now a blogger, Della (Rachel McAdams). He — and the movie — think ill of bloggers; one line of dialogue makes this link: “bloodsuckers and bloggers.”

This gives the two journalists’ partnership its conflict, but the writers should have paid more attention to how bloggers operate and how that affects a newsroom. The story these two work on for days as the mystery unravels would have leaked here and there on an hourly basis, destroying their “scoop.” Della should be posting as the investigation goes on, driving Cal nuts but giving the film a true ticking clock.

Gaps in logic are everywhere. The dead junkie’s girlfriend hand-delivers crucial evidence to Cal. How does she know to go to him? The final twist might be one too many, something a writer dreams up rather than a credible outgrowth of the character relations as developed to that point.

The film’s melodrama is too intense for the main actors, forcing everyone to histrionic levels and undermining performances. Consequently, better work appears in smaller roles, such as Wright Penn’s political wife, Jason Bateman as a PR hack and Jeff Daniels as a smarmy congressman.

Tech credits are solid across the board.

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