Fast-paced 'Paper' delivers a fun-filled whirl of the news world

March 25, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

I wish working for a newspaper were half so much fun as "The Paper" makes it out to be. Around here, no columnist has pulled out a gun in years and the metro editor and the managing editor haven't had a good fistfight on the press deck since at least January!

The movie, directed by Ron Howard, is an attempt to re-create the breezy, slap-- newspaper farces of the '30s -- "Front Page" comes to mind -- and it almost succeeds. It's so jampacked with incidents and some of them are so ridiculous that it makes you want to holler, "Get me rewrite." Its best thing is pace: It races along like a wheelbarrow full of monkeys shoved down a turnpike on-ramp.

Now and then it even achieves a moment of feeling. Best anecdote: A young photographer, cynically chosen by her boss for the express purpose of screwing up so as to sabotage a rival's big story, finds herself overmatched, overwhelmed and out-muscled at the site of the event, which is a transfer of two suspects to another prison. Brutalized and bedazzled, she is simply crushed. But does she get the shot? Boy, does she ever, and it's a great one.

But more generally, "The Paper" is organized around the "day-from-hell" principle that crams the happenings from a dozen different careers into one frantic shift of a mid-level New York tabloid called The Sun. The fulcrum of these events is the metro editor, played at a state of high frazzle by the irascible Michael Keaton, who has the harried working-stiff riff down pat.

Not a happy day for Keaton. Last night, he alone among big-town metro editors missed a story -- two Arizona businessmen discovered themselves on the wrong end of a machine pistol in an area where they shouldn't have been in the first place -- and there are enormous competitive pressures to catch up with a big second-day follow.

His two police reporters, unfortunately, hate each other's guts and besides, the cops aren't talking. At the same time, the snooty New York Sentinel (a predictably banal exaggeration of the New York Times) has offered him a big job, though not without reinforcing its own sense of moral superiority. But he has to decide today.

Then there's his wife, who is so big with child she looks like she's about to explode. Do you think she's going to have it today? His managing editor is on a terminal snit fit and his editor-in-chief is dying of prostate cancer. And his No. 1 columnist is carrying a gun, convinced that the city's director of parking is trying to have him killed.

As I say, we never have that much fun!

The screenplay, by David Koepp and Stephen Koepp, adroitly plays these mini-crises off each other at breakneck speed. The most crucial is a professional dilemma: The rush to judgment and deadlines mandates that the two suspects picked up for the crime be found guilty, guilty, guilty by Gotham's front pages. But Keaton has just the tiniest suspicion that the arrest won't hold and is struggling to confirm it against deadline pressure as well ,, as the impositions of career and impending fatherhood.

In the other corner is Glenn Close, who seems to have inherited the mantle of Great American Bitch from an earlier generation's Joan Crawford, as the managing editor who doesn't care if they're guilty or not. She wants to get a great, paper-selling headline onto the front page -- and, by the way, it is a great headline: GOTCHA!

There's probably enough story here for 10 movies and a consequence of the crowding is that nothing is developed or given any particular weight. The sublime runs cheek-and-jowl with the ridiculous. The unbelievable and the all-too-believable share the same reel and sometimes the same scene.

Unbelievable: a writer shooting a gun in the building and not finding himself A) under arrest and B) unemployed. Believable: Management trying to stiff people out of long-distance calls. Unbelievable: Spaulding Gray as a New York Sentinel editor so preposterously stuffy he should be wearing a periwig and silk stockings. Believable: Glenn Close's smart, tough, bitter, shrewd managing editor, represented in the movie as the "bad guy," but nevertheless impressively human.

Good performances overpower the bad ones. I never thought I'd say it, but the great Robert Duvall has been better: His editor-in-chief seems generic and he can't find anything unique about the man. Marisa Tomei shrieks too much as the pregnant wife. Jason Robards is viciously patrician in a 30-second scene as the publisher. Randy Quaid, as the gun-toting columnist, is merely bland. Jason Alexander, as a bitter politician, is hardly recognizable.

What the movie gets, however, is a lost value in American movies, lost at least since Richard Brooks' "Deadline, U.S.A." That may have to do with the curious way that the newspaper, once the font of every wannabe Hemingway's most ardent fantasies and then the font of every wannabe Woodward-Bernstein's hopes, has lost its role in the dreamscape of American culture as the highway of possibility.

But the movie captures exactly why those of us who do this for a living can't seem to shed ourselves of it: that crazed, dizzying, exhausting sense of being, if ever so briefly, where it's happening; and the sense that somewhere out there in the great unknown landscape that is our readership is somebody who cares what we write. The movie understands what draws people to Suns both real and imaginary.

"The Paper"

Starring Michael Keaton and Glenn Close

Directed by Ron Howard

Released by Universal

Rated R

** 1/2

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