'State' a slick political thriller
courtesy of Universal Pictures D.C. reporter Cal McCaffrey, played by Russell Crowe, questions U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins, with Ben Affleck in the role.

Associated Press

State of Play

Rated PG-13 for some violence, language including sexual references, and brief drug content. Running time: 118 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

"State of Play" looks like a provocative, '70s-style political thriller, and it's the murder of a young woman — a rising congressman's mistress — that drives the narrative.

But it also turns out to be a fond homage to old-school journalism, and it plays like a eulogy for a sadly dying industry. That's especially true of the footage that rolls during the closing credits: the printing, packaging and shipping out of a big-city newspaper. The images may seem mundane, but they also evoke nostalgia for a more optimistic, prosperous time — especially for those of us who work in this business. And, naturally, we all love movies about ourselves.

Crowe's Cal McAffrey represents the last vestige of this way of life. A veteran reporter for the Washington Globe (standing in for the Post), he drives a beat-up 1990 Saab, crams junk food in this face on the way to a crime scene and even keeps a bottle of whiskey in the drawer of his irreparably messy desk.

But he also happens to be old friends with the politician in question, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who's chairman of the committee overseeing defense spending. Cal's various conflicts of interest — and the congressman's — are revealed as the police and the paper compete to investigate the killing.

Director Kevin Macdonald, who already showed a sure hand in navigating complex plots and intense intrigue with "The Last King of Scotland,” moves the story along smoothly through its various twists and turns.

He also gets journalism right, which doesn't always happen. Despite the quaint depiction of a packed newsroom bustling with activity, the debates about quick online hits vs. hard-hitting investigations, between selling papers with fluff vs. offering actual substance, feel relevant and real.

Believably disheveled, Crowe loses himself in yet another role — as always, he's a character actor in a leading man's body — and he has some fiery exchanges with the always sharp Helen Mirren as the paper's editor. Crowe also has a comfortable chemistry with Rachel McAdams as the young blogger he reluctantly accepts as his partner, and a couple of great scenes with Jason Bateman as a sleazy PR exec who connects several key players. But he and Affleck never feel like a good fit for each other, and not just in acting ability. The age difference is too distracting and makes it difficult to believe they were college roommates, which is crucial to the plot. Crowe is 45 and looks it; and while Affleck makes sense as a Washington up-and-comer with his generically smooth, vapid appearance, he's 36 and looks it, too.

These aren't the things we should be occupying our mind with when there's much meatier stuff to sink our teeth into on screen.

17 Again

Rated PG-13 for language, some sexual material and teen partying. Running time: 98 minutes. Two stars out of four.

"17 Again” is one of those movies that requires you to suspend all disbelief and assume that someone who looks like Zac Efron could, in 20 years, turn into someone who looks like Matthew Perry. (Those must have been some rough years — either that or Rob Lowe wasn't available.)

Can't do it, you say? Well, that detail is just about as implausible as the film's premise itself: Mike O'Donnell (Perry), a miserable father of two on the brink of divorce, gets a chance to relive his high school days and improve his future by becoming 17 in the present day, all thanks to the magical powers of a mystical janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray).

It's always some odd figure on the fringe who brings about this kind of fantastic transformation, isn't it? This guy literally says to Mike: "I bet you wish you had it to do all over again.”

Well yes, there are a lot of elements in "17 Again” that feel awfully familiar. Director Burr Steers, a long way from his darkly comic, coming-of-age debut "Igby Goes Down,” takes you places you've been before — many times — in more charming movies like "Big,” "13 Going on 30,” "Freaky Friday,” "Never Been Kissed” and even "Back to the Future.” The idea of going back to high school is so overdone, there was even an entire episode of "Family Guy” that parodied it. (Jason Filardi is credited with writing "17 Again.”)

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