Hollywood has finally gotten it right, for STATE OF PLAY, unlike the torturous, unmagical DUPLICITY, really delivers in terms of smart adult entertainment. From a snappy, topical script by three writers, Director Kevin MacDonald has fashioned a crackling show which combines the genres of sassy newspaper comedy with gripping murder mystery.
It’s been superlatively cast with Russell Crowe playing a blue-collarish equivalent of old school journalist, who amusingly disdains the ego and faulty facts perpetrated by bloggers, and is perfectly content with his 16-year-old computer and rusty Saab. Crowe – in a gesture all of us journalists I suppose shouldn’t take too personally – has let himself go physically to pot, with anything-but-buff torso and tangled, unwashed-looking mass of hair. (Indeed, he’s almost the visual embodiment of the name of his erstwhile real life rock group, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts.) However one may feel about his well-publicized anger issues, he’s undeniably one hell of an actor and a true star in the rare traditional sense, that singular performer able to instill empathy into a wide variety of heroic roles even in crap movies, from GLADIATOR and the 18th century swagger of MASTER AND COMMANDER to brainier roles, such as in THE INSIDER, A BEAUTIFUL MIND and this one.
He has great chemistry with his two female co-stars. Helen Mirren, as his tough, eye-on-the-bottom line editor, enjoys herself – as do we, the audience, thoroughly enjoy her – barking out orders and disapproval like a distaff Edward G. Robinson, while Rachel McAdams is a good enough actress to largely remove any traces of tiresomeness from her part as a callow, newbie Internet reporter, while simultaneously conveying a hint of physical attraction for Crowe. The fact that this aspect of their relationship is not overstressed is alone cause for hosannahs and testament to the film’s admirable lack of audience condescension. (No sudden, over-scored syrupy romantic interludes to break up the essential working relationship between these two.)
Ben Affleck, with his callow handsomenessand general aura of displacement, is perfectly cast as the politician who becomes embroiled in the mysterious death of his mistress, and the part of an odious White House power monger fits Jeff Daniels like a suede driving glove. Robin Wright Penn – strangely resembling Sarah Jessica Parker here – manages to do small, deep wonders in the thankless role of Affleck’s wronged wife who shares a certain past with Crowe. Jason Bateman provides a small, but richly detailed comic portrait of a public relations honcho, whose druggy pansexuality defines sleaze.
The whole thing is handsomely filmed, moves at a swift absorbing pace and is even tastefully scored, music-wise, a real exception these days. MacDonald’s sense of the romantic informs and enriches many of the relationships here, but it’s never more evident or more effective than in the film’s ending montage – of real honest-to-God newspapers you can actually hold in your hands as you read them, coming off the presses. There’s nothing particularly new in this imagery but, after what the film has been trying to say about real news reporting, coupled with the current decimation of print media all over this country, I found the footage particularly stirring and myself brushing a tear away.
EVERY LITTLE STEP is one of the best backstage musicals ever made, never mind that it’s a documentary. It covers the process by which the 2006 revival of the beloved musical A CHORUS LINE, brilliant brainchild of the late choreographer-director Michael Bennett, made its way to Broadway, specifically through the arduous rounds of auditions by desperately hopeful actors, whose all-encompassing obsession exactly matches that of the characters for which they are trying out.
Marvin Hamlisch, Michael Bennett, 1975 (Photography by Martha Swope)
Directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern obviously have a deep love for their subject and they’ve elicited marvelously informative stuff from the many interviewees they film, from original creators, Bob Avian, John Breglio, Marvin Hamlisch, Donna McKechnie, and Baayork Lee to everyone involved in or trying to be involved in the later revival. Although it’s a story that’s been repeated and published ad infinitum, the gestation of the 1975 A CHORUS LINE, from early, informal taping sessions conducted by Michael Bennett over a jug of wine in someone’s apartment to the revolution it created in the theatre, still has the power to thrill. The movie is also filled with humor, in the hard-bitten showbiz kind of sass easily bandied about by the veterans. The new kids provide laughs as well, some inadvertently, as one especially over-confident tyro is seen spouting egotistical, my-own-boss-ness platitudes, when his name is suddenly called by a casting director, and he suddenly jumps to attention like an obedient puppy.
Donna McKechnie, 1975 (Photography by Martha Swope)
The film swiftly achieves the compelling watchability and suspense of AMERICAN IDOL or DANCING WITH STARS, with the significant difference that here you are seeing contestants all possessing considerably more than a modicum of talent to match considerable ego, with all of them willing to fit themselves into the specific demands of characters written more than thirty years ago, who have somehow remained timeless. Call it closer to real art, if anything. The heartbreak and frustration of failure is real, as when one very experienced gypsy loses the key role of Sheila (“Tits and Ass”) because she blows the last of several auditions held over a long period of time, being unable to recall what she had done that had so excited the casting people earlier on. In a mirroring instance of life imitating art, established Broadway star Charlotte D’Amboise snagged the McKechnie’s seminal part of former star Cassie and we see her elatedly receiving the thumbs up phone call in the house of her adoring, adorable father, veteran dancer Jacques D’Amboise. (She may have had experience on her side, but her eventual, finished performance was not all that, like her puzzlingly unmemorable SWEET CHARITY, and I still wish I could have seen what her closest contender might have made of the role.)
Jason Tam, as Paul
But there’s triumph, as well, like when all hope seems to be lost in ever finding the right “Paul,” the homosexual former burlesque dancer who’s the most memorable, ground-breaking male character, young Jason Tam walks in and nails the audition so beautifully that Avian bursts into tears before saying “Sign him up!” Tam, who confided being gay to me in an early interview and who went to Hawaii’s Punahou School, the alma mater of Obama, as well as myself, did indeed provide one of the few highlights of the actual production when it did finally, indifferently open. The ultimate irony is that this film about its creation is infinitely more enjoyable and rewarding than what made it onto the Broadway stage.