Monday, October 19, 2009

State of bleh

So we watched State of play on DVD, and that was very disappointing. The British thriller serial it is based on is taut, brilliantly acted and convincing, so what did they do? They took it and Hollywooded it. Where the British show was understated, the film is overwrought. Where Paul Abbot wrote it tight, the Hollywood scriptwriters loosened it up, using button-pushing cliches instead of accurate observations. What makes Abbot's work great is that you can imagine you are eavesdropping conversations. Flawed but believable, real characters say things you might say in the circumstances. When Ben Affleck's character glowers at Russell Crowe and says "I'm trouble", I literally groaned. And not with pleasure.

Affleck's character is typical of what's wrong with the film. (Note in the following that with minor embellishments, at least for the first half, the film follows the plot of the series pretty closely.) Collins is hounded by the press after the death of his researcher so he fetches up on the doorstep of Cal, the hack hero of the piece. So he comes to Cal and gives him a spiel that he is his only friend. The impression you get is that no one likes Collins because he's a bellend. In the series, David Morrissey's Collins is no bellend. He's likeable when he wants to be, but mostly he isn't nice to people because he doesn't need them. It's clear how he has made his way to the top. You can imagine his manoeuvring in the dirty game of politics. Affleck seems naive, incapable. Morrissey is knowing, dismissive. His moment of weakness in the press conference is shocking in the TV series, and grows more shocking when you learn, scene on scene, how out of character it is.

I won't even try to explain why the scenes between Cal and Collins' wife are wrong, because they are so wrong they defy explanation. What possessed them to cast characters with so little chemistry as Russell Crowe and Robin Wright Penn? What possessed them to write the scenes as melodrama? What possessed them to cast Crowe at all? He's woeful. Where John Simm played Cal as nimble and clever, impish, righteous and driven, but not unsympathetic, primarily giving the impression of a man who thinks it over, Crowe plays him as a side of beef. Bring me John Cusack! I cried. The interplay between Della and Cal is entirely lost, not least because Rachel MacAdams was not provided a character at all and does not know what to do with the cliche she has had foisted on her. No one does. They even make Helen Mirren look bad.

It's astonishing that this trash got good reviews. Even if I hadn't seen the TV series, which I highly recommend if you can get hold of it, I would have hated this film. It's not even amusing to listen to Crowe's accent wander over the continental United States or to wonder whether Ben Affleck would at any point try to convey an emotion, although as an academic exercise in figuring out how you can really destroy a good idea, it succeeded brilliantly.

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