Chemistry is the undefinable thing that can make or break a movie.
Entire film series have been based on it – look at the Martin and Lewis
movies, or the Road To movies, or the Wilder/Pryor films or even recent
movies like I Love You, Man. All of these films are predicated on the
idea that the chemistry of the leads will be enough make spending 90
minutes with them enjoyable, no matter what.

State of Play
is a victim of chemistry. Or rather a lack thereof. A
capable, intelligent, compelling thriller, the movie stumbles because
the supposed lifelong friendship between stars Ben Affleck and Russell
Crowe doesn’t feel real. Not only do Crowe and Affleck never feel like
old friends, they feel like they’ve never met. It seems possible that
all their shared scenes were shot at different times and digitally
composited together, in fact.

It’s hard to hold this against the movie. Director Kevin Macdonald and
his small army of credited, very capable writers (Matthew Michael
Carnaha, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray) have crafted a film that is smart
as hell, that’s exciting without resorting to outlandish action
scenarios (Hollywood, take notice: there are very few boring moments in
this movie and yet almost the entire film is given over to the nuts and
bolts of investigation – phone calls, interviews, research). And right
up until the very last minute he had two great leads. Brad Pitt would
have played the Washington Globe reporter who discovers that his random
double homicide story is connected to things much bigger than he could
have expected while Edward Norton was to play his old college chum, now
a rising young politician whose career is about to be derailed by a sex

No matter how well written the script, no matter how tense the
direction, no matter how striking the cinematography and no matter how
good the acting, the entire film needs to have the chemistry between
the leads be palpable. It needs to let this unspoken element do the
communicating with us; we need to be able to see the leads in a scene
together and not just understand their friendship but feel it. And that
never happens. Pitt and Norton proved in the past that they had that chemistry; I think
even Pitt and Affleck (as was once the iteration) would have pulled it
off. But Affleck and Crowe… emptiness.

I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. Affleck gives a good performance as
a Tommy Carcetti/John Edwards type – a guy who really has the best of
intentions but cannot keep his dick in his pants. He’s shortchanged by
the script, getting way less screen time than Crowe, and that hurts him
a bit. We never quite get a feel for this guy or what the stakes are
for him; but even with the little given him Affleck manages to radiate
a fierce, wounded pride, being the epitome of a man who is furious that
the good work he is doing in Congress is about to be destroyed by this
nonsense scandal. I’ve never seen the original BBC miniseries, but I
understand it delves more into this character and his world; that is
sorely missing in the film version.

Crowe is actually great. I had sort of written him off a couple of
years ago; I never quite understood the guy’s appeal (as an actor or as
a sex object, frankly), and in recent films he’s given me the
impression of a guy coasting. I saw some hints of a guy back up on the
challenge of acting in American Gangster, but that was about it since
Master and Commander. State of Play is a terrific role for him. Still
sporting the weight we’ll charitably pretend he gained for Body of
Lies, Crowe does rumpled reporter well. And his chemistry with Rachel
McAdams, playing a cub reporter who blogs for the Globe, is sweet and
believable (and nearly completely non-sexual. I almost can’t believe
there’s no serious tension between these two in a mainstream Hollywood
movie. Hat off to Macdonald et al for keeping it real).

The tension between blogs and newspapers is part of the undercurrent of
State of Play. The movie’s essentially a newspaper thriller, and it’s
aware of how anachronistic that is. I like that TV news isn’t even a
blip on the radar of the struggling newspaper – it’s all about the
threat of blogs and their looseness with facts and their desire for
scoops. Hey, I feel ya, Macdonald, and I’m also on the side of the
newspapers and fact checking and all that good stuff. But there’s a
fetishization of newsprint here that I don’t get. I would have liked to
see the lines blurring at the end of the film; so much of the third
act’s climax is based on beating a deadline and holding the front page,
concepts that feel so outdated in the internet world. More people will
read Crowe and McAdams’ explosive story on the internet than on paper.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and it feels like the
immediacy of the internet is something that could have made for a great
solution to a couple of the third act obstacles that felt put there
just to keep things from going too smoothly (such as the predictably
bad new corporate owners of the paper not wanting to run said explosive

The supporting cast of State of Play is uniformly excellent. McAdams avoids movie glamour as the dewy eyed blogger (although she allows herself workplace glamour. You’ll believe women look like this in the real world), and I think she really hits a sweet spot for her character, allowing a gradual growth that could be the most interesting arc in the film. I actually feel bad putting her in this paragraph – she’s more of the co-lead than Affleck, by far. Helen
Mirren is wonderful as the newspaper editor in chief caught inbetween
the desire to deliver solid news and the need to sell papers; Robin
Wright Penn and Jeff Daniels play Affleck’s wife and mentor
respectively, and they’re great as well. But the standout supporting
actor is Jason Bateman, bringing a toned down version of his Smokin’
character, playing a sleazy, sexually promiscuous PR guy who might
be the key to the whole mystery. He’s funny without ever delivering
schtick; delivering comedy while not violating the dramatic integrity
of the world a film like this creates is an incredible skill, and few
can pull it off. And almost none as well as Bateman.

The dramatic world that is created is one where the death throes of
newspapers are a big cause for concern, as is the privatization of the
military and Homeland Security. Both of these are serious issues that
deserve lots of attention, but there’s something weirdly stiff about
the movie’s political concerns. Maybe because none of it feels new,
which isn’t quite the fault of the movie, but it is the fault of the
movie that it can’t quite make it compelling. The best parts of State
of Play
as thriller come from the personal stakes as Crowe and McAdams
get deeper into dangerous territory, but the scenes where we’re
supposed to be outraged about the idea of private armies taking over
Homeland Security contracts – on American soil! – feel like nothing
more than a plot device. In the 70s, in the heyday of the paranoid
thriller, there was still a frisson to the idea of claiming the
government was the bad guy. Today both sides of the aisle make that
argument regularly; in fact, the central conspiracy in State of Play
reads like a right wing Black Helicopters theory. At the base of it any
movie would be hard pressed to make governmental misdeeds and cover ups
feel all that shocking nearly 40 years after Watergate, but I wish
State of Play had tried a little bit harder.

In the end, with the right leads, all of these concerns would be
niggling details. But poor Kevin Macdonald couldn’t get his leads. I
honestly feel bad for the guy – he had a potential classic on his
hands, but talent problems have led to him making a good, solid,
respectably movie. Most movies aspire to just that sort of thing, but
it’s obvious that State of Play could have been so much more.

7.5 out of 10