Thursday, April 16, 2009

Russell Crowe keeps the presses rolling

The new thriller "State of Play" should make newspaper folks happy -- not because it's a great movie, but because it's packed with dialog that sings the praises of old-school journalism as opposed to blogging and other forms of Internet flotsam.

For me, the most moving part of the movie arrives during the end credits. We watch as the presses roll and an edition of the fictional Washington Globe makes its way toward the streets. Those of us who've spent much of our lives working for papers may not be able to view those credits without feeling a trifle obsolete. With more and more papers vanishing from the publishing landscape, the mighty roar of the presses threatens to go silent -- or at least be reduced to a sporadic growl.

OK, now that I've got that out of my system, a look at "State of Play," a tolerable thriller that stars Russell Crowe as an appropriately disheveled reporter for The Washington Globe. After a gripping opening involving a couple of murders, Crowe's Cal McAffrey finds himself in the middle of a story that involves his old college roommate (Ben Affleck), now a Congressman. Affleck's Rep. Collins has been working to expose a company called PointCorp, which is busy accumulating too much power. Cal's involvement in his new story is complicated by his friendship with the Congressman. It also doesn't help that he once slept with the Congressman's wife (Robin Wright Penn).

For all its topical journalistic references -- the Globe just has been bought by a media conglomerate that can't take its eye off the bottom line -- "State of Play" winds up having less to do with the fate of newspapers than with a web of conspiracy that has engulfed Washington. By now, the ingredients have become movie staples: corporate greed, an unchecked lust for power, sexual hijinx and the kind of personal rot that makes people want to run for cover -- or at least for the next cover-up. I kept wishing "State of Play" would reveal something new. I didn't want it to be satisfied with jaded beliefs that have become de rigueur. In "State of Play," cynicism feels like yesterday's news.

Say this, though: Crowe looks almost as bad as any journalist I've worked with. Hey, I said "almost." Rumpled, pudgy and sporting unfashionably long hair, Crowe's Cal refers to the whiskey he drinks as "Irish wine." He lives alone, a newspaper monk who's known to every cop in the city. Fortunately, Crowe adds touches of compassion to the role of a hard-boiled reporter who's annoyed that his editor (Helen Mirren) has teamed him with one of the paper's Internet reporters (Rachel McAdams). Cal regards McAdams' Della Frye as little more than a gossip monger. Of course, they develop a bond, and, no, it's not romantic.

As befits a good thriller, a complicated plot is dotted with small, tasty roles. Jason Batemen is slick and sleazy as a PR man who knows where bodies are buried, and Jeff Daniels proves convincing as the House majority leader. Mirren, who's given a lot of arch one-liners, makes the most of them.

The plot gets a bit too dense at the end, piling on details and twists, and I had the feeling that director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") was trying for something more meaningful than anything he's been able to achieve. "State of Play," which adapts and Americanizes a highly regarded British TV mini-series, proves entertaining enough, but it's not likely to write any lasting big-screen headlines.


Watching "17 Again" I felt as if I were turning pages in a book I'd read a thousand times -- and which wasn't all that great to begin with. Familiarity definitely bred a bit of contempt with this teen-oriented comedy, although fairness compels me to rank it as a middle-grade helping of high-school fare.

And, you can breathe at least one sigh of relief. "17 Again" magically turns a grown man (Matthew Perry) into a teen-ager, but spares us the agonies of time travel. Transformed into a kid, Perry's Mike O'Donnell doesn't go back in time; instead he joins his daughter and son in high school, an adult in a kid's body. Of course, Mike's children don't know that the handsome new kid in school is their dad. Wouldn't he look vaguely familiar to them? Evidently not.

The movie grows out of discontent. Mike has been stewing in bitterness for years because he refused a college basketball scholarship so that he could marry and support his high school sweetheart (Leslie Mann). She was pregnant, and Mike did the right thing. Years later, he's mired in regret. He has allowed his life to become one long look backward, a perpetual longing for what might have been.

Seventeen-year-old Mike is played by Zac Efron, a TV heartthrob and "High School Musical" star. If I cared about TV heartthrobs, I'd have gotten around to Efron sooner. He may well turn "17 Again" into a teen/tween success, and if the movie works at all, it's because Efron holds it together.

Of course, you don't believe a minute of "17 Again," but that hardly matters. I saw the movie several three weeks ago, and my precise reaction has been mercifully forgotten. I think I chuckled a few times. Nonetheless, I'll venture a prediction: Look for "17 Again'' to win the weekend at the box office and to enjoy a profitable life on DVD, thus proving that one should never underestimate the power of medium-grade comedy -- not in these distressed times.

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