Sunday, May 3, 2009

Now go rent the real 'State of Play'

It has been several weeks since a studiously rumpled Russell Crowe led the journalistic charge in "State of Play," a truncated version of the six-part British mini-series that made waves across the pond in 2003, and which was relocated to Washington, D.C. for Hollywood purposes. I'm currently immersed in the series, and I'd say that the Hollywood version -- which I thought decent though hardly superb -- suffers mightily at the hands of its English predecessor.

Unbothered by any need to lament the dying of U.S, newspapers or the undisciplined encroachments of the Internet, the British series simply dives into the messy world of reporting. According to the series, British cops and reporters trade secrets, sources sell information and ethical lines blur as fast as a rain drops on a smudged windshield. I won't reprise the labyrinthine plot, which is similar to what screenwriters Michael Matthew Carnahan and Tony Gilroy concocted for their movie, but will say that the story makes more sense when it's not being jammed into 127 minutes. Murder, political corruption, sexual improprieties and large amounts of money constitute a pretty full plate.

This is not to say that the BBC series should, in any way, be considered languid. Director Paul Abbott keeps the proceedings taught, wields a lively camera and staves off dullness. Yet, the story feels like it's actually unfolding in plausible chunks of time. The six-episode format also allows relationships among the characters to develop in keener and more revealing ways, and not everything needs to be presented in the kind of compact shorthand style I remember from the movie.

John Simm, who plays the main reporter in the case, is not Russell Crowe, an actor of considerable heft. Simms is slighter and less easily pinned down than Crowe. And unlike Crowe, the British script doesn't fuss over his character, loading him with traits that are meant to set him apart from everyone else -- unfashionably long hair, a pudgy body and a desk that looks as if only a cyclone might clean it. Simm's Cal McCaffrey, like Crowe's version of the character, can be morally conflicted, but he's generally more at ease in his surroundings.

The Hollywood version, which was directed by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland"), passes a certain kind of muster, particularly when it comes to casting. The movie -- which includes appearances by Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels -- can't be faulted for most of its performances.

But there are slips, as well -- and they become more glaring once you've settled into the BBC version. Rachael McAdams does not get close to Kelly Macdonald as the young female reporter who teams with McCaffrey, and, in the American version, Robin Wright Penn comes up empty as the wife of the philandering congressman played by Ben Affleck. Writing is partly to blame for Penn's difficulties because the role of the U.S. pol's wife -- played in the British series by Polly Walker -- never really clicks. Affleck, on the other hand, more than holds his own, although I prefer David Morrissey's MP to Affleck's congressman. Morrissey's Stephen Collins feels a bit softer around the edges, just rubbery enough for a philandering MP.

As the editor of the fictional Washington newspaper in the American version, Mirren provides the movie with the sting of some sharply written one-liners. There is no world in which one can (or should) compare the work of the always-exceptional Mirren with the always-exceptional Bill Nighy, who plays the editor in the British series. But the script in the BBC version gives Nighy more to do. Being a fine actor with a rueful sense of wit and intelligence, Nighy can't help but outshine his U.S. counterpart.

It's no secret that mini-series can outstrip movies when it comes to novelistic plots that require many characters, and there's something liberating about being able to control the pace at which you watch "State of Play." You don't have to consume all six-episodes at once, and might even enjoy them more if you don't.

If you've got the time, you may want to see both the movie and the series, It's fun to play compare and contrast. Movie fans, however, may not be heartened to discover that this is one battle they probably can't win.


Katherine said...

I have not seen the movie, specifically because the Brit series was so good and I worried about being let down by the movie. Thanks, Bob, for recommending the series. Your comments have actually made me more interested in seeing the movie to compare the differences.

Victoria said...

I'm glad someone is touting the original BBC series. I would like to note that Simm is an excellent actor and there have now been two American remakes of BBC shows featuring John Simm that have missed the mark: State of Play as a film, and Life on Mars as a series. The originals are much better for a number of reasons, but not the least of which is Simm.