State of What?

So what do you do when you need to get your brakes fixed, and you don’t want to rent a car?

You go to the movies.

Yesterday, we faced the choice of: 1) watching sitcoms that should never have seen the light of day, let alone syndication, while sitting in a dismal waiting room on hard, puce colored plastic chairs and breathing in the smell of rubber; or 2), going to Century Theater in the mall (despite moral objections to the idea of movies in malls) and trying to find something worth seeing.

Fortunately, there was an offering without either Zac Efron or Miley Cyrus (or Billy Ray) …
And that’s how I came to see State of Play on its opening weekend.

What did I think? Well, know going in that I adore Russell Crowe. I think he’s the finest actor of his generation. I like Ben Affleck–I thought he was actually quite good in Hollywoodland. Robin Wright Penn was affecting and fine in a small role. And I worship at the altar of Helen Mirren, who has more sex appeal in her little toe than the twenty-somethings haunting the paparazzi rags.

I found the acting terrific–particularly a turn by Jason Bateman that should net him a Best Supporting Actor nod. I thought the direction riveting and superbly paced, the editing quintessentially suspenseful. And the overall plot–which focuses on why we need honest to God newspaper people, journalists with ink under their fingersnails and Scotch in their desk drawers–to be provocative, timely and important.

Themes like journalism, dying newspapers, political hypocrisy (especially about sex, infidelity and any other issue that used to be considered private back in the day when privacy actually existed–i.e. before other people’s mobile phone conversations became commuter entertainment) … and the very real and very scary use of private companies to fight wars, companies that make war to make a profit … well, all of this was intelligent and plausibly presented.


The actual plot didn’t make sense. Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle critic, loved the film up until the end, then lambasted the filmmakers and the writers for leaving us with a nonsensical “thrilling” ending that violated logic and characterization left and right. And ya know … I gotta agree with him. I disagree, though, that it was All the President’s Men up until that point. Despite some wit in the dialog, I thought there were too many Evel Knieval leaps of faith and logic, too many loose ends, too many undeveloped character threads that were never answered (even badly).

Part of the problem is that the film was a condensation of a six-hour BBC mini-series. Part of the problem was that it looked like the filmmakers changed their minds about a particular character half-way through the movie. Part of the problem is that we’re supposed to believe that Ben and Russell were roommates (and the same age as Robin Wright Penn), when Russell and Robin are clearly much older than Affleck, despite some grey added to his temples.

All in all, the film really was a thrill ride in terms of edge-of-your-seat direction, and expressed the best intentions in the world. But as a writer, I felt like it was also a three shell trick to hide a faulty plot. And I still don’t understand the title.

But hallelujah for one thing–it sang the praises of newspapers. Watch the end credits–which brillantly illustrate the path from the reporter’s computer to your neighborhood delivery of The Times, The Post, The Chronicle. And making journalists heroic–no matter how imperfect the vehicle–is always, always a worthy endeavor.

Next week: a look at a terrific noir with Dick Powell at his most hard-boiled: Cornered. Plus, I’ll be in Los Angeles for the Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book, signing on Sunday at 1 PM with The Mystery Book Store. Come by Booth #411 and say hi!