State of Play seems longer than the slick, pulpy six-hour British TV series it’s based on because director Kevin Macdonald can’t begin to approach the paranoid genre mastery seen in the films of John Frankenheimer and Alan Pakula. Having made a goofy, trivializing Idi Amin melodrama in The Last King of Scotland, Macdonald now ineptly exploits Iraq-quagmire topicality—not even with the wit or sporadic imagination of Jonathan Demme’s Manchurian Candidate update—along with journo-romance about the accelerating death of newsprint. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s handsome images of rainswept, nighttime Washington are undermined by the interior sequences’ shaky handheld framing, a cop-show-imported cliché, but even more by collapsing the U.K. original’s character depth and procedural wrinkles into souped-up silliness. Stripped of its flair and diversions, what’s left of the tale is relentlessly, grindingly dopey.
Russell Crowe, not without appeal, shambles through his scenes as the rule-breaking D.C. reporter hero, his underdog cred established by the shitty old Saab he drives and his easy rapport with the staff at Ben’s Chili Bowl. When the aide/mistress of a congressman (Ben Affleck, acting solely with his square jaw and tight mouth) dies mysteriously on the eve of the pol’s exposure of a many-tentacled security contractor (read: Halliburton), Crowe uses his status as the rep’s ex-roomie to probe the links between the woman’s demise, the murder of a young junkie, and seemingly every other piece of skullduggery being perpetrated on the banks of the Potomac. Racing to get the truth to press before the police solve the deaths, he conducts an old-school battle-turned-alliance with his paper’s online gossip kewpie (Rachel McAdams) and must keep on the right side of hardass executive editor Helen Mirren, who shouts lines like “The new owners want profits!” where Bill Nighy hilariously swanned his way through the TV role (admittedly, he could not have approximated Dame Helen’s butch quotient).
State of Play’s would-be hip tourism of the capital’s loungey bars and Kennedy Center functions can’t erase its shallow Stink of the Union glossiness. That Mirren and a detective both mock Crowe’s quest to uncover “corporate conspiracy” suggests how conscious the filmmakers are of returning to this old well, if not of how openly moneyed malfeasance is greased in the halls of Congress. The young black purse-snatcher whose murder kicks off the mystery is paid little further mind here, so we can observe Robin Wright Penn cast yet again as an appendage to unworthy men, and failed suspense like Crowe’s hide-and-seek with an assassin culminating with a ludicrous Mannix-style car-door hang-on. Against the odds, it’s Jason Bateman who scores late with a funny turn as a pansexual public-relations playboy (“What’s in your gay rage?” he coyly inquires of Crowe’s taste in cars), as does Jeff Daniels as a ruthless House powerbroker (in one of the script’s few roguish moves, all the congressional sharks seem to be Democrats). But it’s not enough to salvage Macdonald’s muddled thriller, whose tiresome moves are played out long before the last unconvincing twist.