Is That Mickey Rourke or Russell Crowe? Are Newspapers Still Sexy? Who Cares!

c rexstate of play 2 Is That Mickey Rourke or Russell Crowe? Are Newspapers Still Sexy? Who Cares! State of Play
Running time 127 minutes
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Helen Mirren

State of Play is the latest incoherently written, mass-entertainment gibberish by the overrated Tony Gilroy. Two other writers share the credit, but the movie implodes bearing the burden of the same smart-aleck Gilroy trademarks as Michael Clayton, Duplicity and all those incomprehensible Bourne identities, supremacies and ultimatums: glam stars spouting corny dialogue, current events shrouded in enough violence and sex to keep the audience awake and labored plot twists hammered to death by a storm of clichés. None of it makes any sense, but people go away from this kind of formulaic gumbo smiling. “Of course it collapses under close scrutiny,” said one critic leaving the screening I attended, “but it’s fun.” So is the kind of mustard-splattered chili dog that leads to acid reflux.

Melding journalism, politics and big business, the plot is a din of babble that begins with the death of a sexy head researcher working for ambitious Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who is investigating Defense Department outsourcing in Iraq and Afghanistan and war profiteering by a private security company called Pointcorps (think Halliburton) that is bidding billions of dollars for a contract to control Homeland Security. Stay with me. It gets worse. Across town from the Congressional hearings, at a major Washington, D.C., newspaper, sits Russell Crowe, a fat, hairy, unshaven and unhealthy-looking slob who looks like something that just crawled out of a cave. He is Cal McAffrey, a renegade reporter who puts two and two together and discovers that the dead girl was the congressman’s drug-loving mistress and a double agent working for Pointcorps. Linking her death to two other murders on the same day, he gradually unravels a swampy jumble of a scandal that makes the congressman a media target. This gets edgy, see, because the congressman and the creepy reporter used to be college roommates and best friends. With three dozen hungry reporters hounding him, Representative Collins camps out at the reporter’s apartment. (Yeah, fat chance, and with three you get eggroll.) Thickening the preposterous brew, McAffrey is saddled with a perky, pretty cub reporter (Rachel McAdams) who tracks down facts he’s trying to keep out of the paper, and Collins’ humiliated wife (a wasted Robin Wright Penn) is recruited to clean up his reputation with the public. The reporter is torn between loyalty to an old friend and the need to stop corporate and government perversion, and a mannish editor named Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) cusses like a drunken sailor and holds up the front page for four hours so her reporters can find the killer and solve the murders on their own. The congressman commits political suicide for the common good, but this movie is not over yet. There’s still the obligatory chase in the dark underground parking garage to endure—not to mention fund-raisers, cocktail parties, people thrown to their deaths from subway platforms, assorted flawed politicians, hidden agendas, split personalities and a ballet at the Kennedy Center. When it finally grinds to a halt after 127 minutes of Cuisinart confusion, you go away muttering, “Huh?”

The funniest thing in the movie is the way it depicts newspapers as sexy, exciting places to solve murder mysteries, meet girls and ignore things like dwindling circulation, fact checking and meeting deadlines. It’s hard to believe Tony Gilroy is the son of the great Pulitzer Prize winner Frank Gilroy, who wrote The Subject Was Roses and knew a few things about logic, psychology, trenchant narrative harmony and believable character development that he failed to pass on to his son. The director is Kevin Macdonald, whose debut feature The Last King of Scotland was a much better film. This one has pace and the actors hold your attention, although Russell Crowe looks like he’s been living the same offscreen life as Mickey Rourke.

rreed@observer.com