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“State of Play,” based on the British miniseries, falls short of the timely conspiracy thriller that it could have been, but that doesn't keep Russell Crowe from turning it into one of the most watchable suspense films of the year. The meaty actor owns the proceedings, elevating his tired husk of a role into something altogether more soulful and riveting.
Crowe plays a wily, experienced D.C. reporter whose past relationship with a Pennsylvania politician (Ben Affleck) thrusts him into the center of what looks like a wide-ranging conspiracy. When Affleck's mistress, an important member of the congressman's staff, is suddenly murdered, Crowe steps in to help his former college roommate control the press coverage. As details about the woman emerge, however, Crowe slowly discovers that his friend needs more than a simple spin job.
From the word go, Crowe's connection to this plot is highly personal, a detail that separates this film from those great conspiracy thrillers of the '70s, where a lone protagonist finds himself swept downhill as sinister revelations snowball into a vastness that leaves him helpless and insignificant. The suspense was all the more effective for the cold and impersonal nature of events. Crowe, on the other hand, is intimately involved with the major players, capable of putting a name and a face on nearly every action. His fleshy mug is most often framed in a tight close up — never lost in the extreme long shot of a wide angle lens, never once dwarfed by his oppressive and increasingly hostile environment.
But Crowe makes it work. His slouchy journalist resists easy cynicism, instead naively relying on an effortless analytical skill that comes not from any cheap world-weariness but from a native ability to see the world plainly. In appearance, he resembles the iconic slacker “Dude” Lebowski, but his temperament is closer to Elliot Gould's Philip Marlowe, with a casual stare that cuts straight through any amount of bullshit and a hidden grin in the corner of his eyes.
The shoddy plot leads Crowe in a number of unlikely directions, but the actor reclaims his character with small, cumulative gestures. Such moments reveal the man behind the suit, and great actors sprinkle them throughout every performance. In “The Departed,” nothing felt so genuine as Alec Baldwin's horrible golf swing. With an assist by the sound designers, his hacking away revealed a small, lovingly cultivated characteristic that brought home the pathetic suffering of his police captain.
Here, Crowe never seems more masterly than when pretending to be a bad actor. While dialing down a list of cell numbers, looking to coax an ID out of whoever answers on the other end, Crowe stumbles in trying to imitate the hard-nosed idiom of an urban youth. The badness of his performance is perfect, a window into the limits of his character's frame of reference, a chink in his wise guy armor.
Were it not for such redemptive moments, from not only Crowe but also Affleck, Robin Wright-Penn, and especially Jason Bateman, the film's resolution might feel cheap beyond credence. Instead, the cast peoples “State of Play” with just enough genuine frailty to justify its existence. See it for the details.