There are a number of moments that stick out in the wake of State of Play—a handful of them good, a fair number more of them not—but there’s one in particular that haunts me. It’s a close up of a young and righteous congressman at a political hearing as he announces the sudden and unexpected death of one of his most valued staffers. The camera pushes slowly inward as he relays the news, and just at the moment his face fills the shot, here it comes: an honest-to-goodness upper-lip quiver of a fairly significant magnitude.
Now, I’m not one to take lightly the ability to generate a normally spontaneous physical tic on command, especially one as complex as a lip quiver. Seriously—try it. Indeed, you can almost see the sweat beading on the actor’s upper lip as he strains behind a broken visage, forcing that flap of meat to vibrate like a cheap motel bed full of quarters.
As impressive as that lip quiver is, though, there are two fairly significant problems attached to it. The first is that the lip in question belongs to Ben Affleck, who after knocking one out of the park with his pal Matt Damon in 1997’s Good Will Hunting (they would share an Oscar for writing the movie) has pretty much sucked horribly in everything he’s done since. I mean, can the good people behind the Razzie Awards (Affleck is a three-time nominee and one-time winner of the Worst Screen Couple prize) be wrong? His performance here is as thin and wooden as his upper lip (okay, cheap shot there).
The second problem is State of Play’s script, which reportedly went through a series of rewrites as it journeyed from a six-hour BBC series into a two-hour feature film, and bears the scars of multiple operations. Proving once again that he’s more than just a pretty face, Brad Pitt, who was originally slated to star as Washington, D.C., journalist Cal McAffrey, removed himself at a late hour because of his concerns with the writing.
Russell Crowe replaced Pitt. As luck would have it, Crowe had just finished shooting 2008’s Body of Lies, and still had the extra weight he had packed on for that role. Though comments from State of Play’s makers seem to indicate their surprise (read: disappointment) at Crowe’s physical condition, the jellyroll around his belly, the long hair and the scruffy beard add a degree of newsroom authenticity that much of the rest of the movie sorely lacks. (Can you see Gladiator’s Maximus sitting behind an unkempt desk working on deadline? Or Brad Pitt, for that matter? Me neither.)
When the script allows Crowe to operate relatively unfettered, he does an admirable job bringing McAffrey to life. He follows the gut instincts of a truly skilled investigative reporter and works the finely balanced connections developed over a career on the street.
There are several other fine supporting roles here, most notably Helen Mirren’s turn as McAffrey’s hard-nosed and profane editorial boss, and Jason Bateman’s deliciously animated take on a strung-out PR guy in way over his head.
But Affleck’s one-dimensional performance as a primary character drags everything else down with it. Rachel McAdams, playing a wet-behind-the-ears blogger who transforms from McAffrey’s foil into his investigative partner, is also a complete washout. It’s hard to say whether that’s due to a lack of acting chops or the craptacular writing, but when a movie built as a taut, thinking-man’s thriller features a female lead who is unable to rise above the level of eye-candy, that’s a problem.
State of Play’s unbearable weight of mediocrity has got me thinking a lot about the state of big Hollywood in general. Obviously, when you churn out as much product as Tinseltown does, you’re going to have your fair share of hits and misses. But more and more, it seems, big-budget movies are torpedoing themselves through an utter lack of plot and character development, and that is inexcusable. The people who made State of Play spent upwards of $60 million to do so (including a cool $20 mil for Crowe’s services), and the end result is a product that leaves no positive lasting impression whatsoever. Conservatives have long complained that Hollywood poisons the political process, but perhaps it is now the movie industry that should take a hint from the real-life Washington, D.C., and start holding people accountable for the messes they create.
That day seems a long way off, though. Despite the economic downturn, box-office revenues are on pace to set all-time highs this year, as evidenced by this quote from an industry analyst: “Unless the world goes off its axis and spins into the sun, I don’t see how we’re not going to have a $10 billion year.”
Hyperbole begets hyperbole, it appears. But I’m crossing my fingers that the movie industry sees some kind of market correction of its own, and soon. This garbage is getting old.