The Paper (1994) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language and some violence
Running Time: 112 min.

Cast: Michael Keaton, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Marisa Tomei, Randy Quaid, Lynne Thigpen, Jason Robards, Jason Alexander, Spalding Grey, Catherine O'Hara, Jack Kehoe, Amelia Campbell
Cameo: Clint Howard, Jill Hennessy, Bob Costas, Pete Hamill, Kurt Loder
Director: Ron Howard

Screenplay: David Koepp, Stephen Koepp

Ron Howard's (Splash, Grand Theft Auto) comic drama tries to mix the cute, light newspaper comedies of the 1930s (a la The Front Page) with the more socially-aware, ensemble-driven occupational films of the 1970s (Network being the most prominent) with very mixed results.  Despite its unevenness, The Paper always remains watchable and entertaining, thanks in large part to the very lively cast and some terrific camerawork.  The insider's feel of the drama does have a certain appeal, with veteran screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, The Shadow) working together with his brother Stephen, who used his background as a senior editor for "Time" magazine to give the newsroom vibe. 

The tale takes place over the course of a full day, primarily revolving around Henry Hackett (Keaton, Batman Returns), metro editor for the fictitious New York Sun (akin to the "Daily News"), a tabloid rag that is seemingly on the verge of folding every six months due to flagging circulation.  Everyone at the paper knows Henry is up for a position at esteemed rival paper, The Sentinel, and during his interview, Hackett manages to steal a scoop for the current lead story involving the apparent race killing that seems to be in retribution for a previous slaying that has greatly affected tourism in the area.  The scoop suggests the two black youths rounded up in the murder have nothing to do with the killing, which is contrary to the Sun's intended front page headline that will be showing the boys taken away. 

Seeking to retain the credibility of the paper, Hackett gets into a feud with the money-minded managing editor, Alicia Clark (Close, Reversal of Fortune), who wants to push the paper to go with the story it already has and print a retraction if necessary as the truth comes out.  Knowing the story would be devastating to the youths, Henry has a definite deadline to get all the facts he can to bolster his own story of the truth, but snags keep coming up along the way, not the least of which happens to be his needy pregnant wife (Tomei, My Cousin Vinny) begging him to finally spend some quality time with her.

Although some solid actors perform well, including several Oscar-winners in the mix, it's a bit of a letdown to see them play some fairly stereotypical characters that seem to exist only in eccentric ensemble films such as this.  We've got the cranky editor (Duvall, Days of Thunder), the bitchy publisher, the shaky photographer (Campbell, Last Ball), the smart-alecky reporter (Quaid, Quick Change), and a host of other oddballs thrown in to interact with one another in a way that suggests comic possibilities are always present whenever a big deadline approaches.  Although Howard does capture some of the allure of working in the hustle and bustle of a big city newspaper, the events that transpire within the course of a day are just too much to swallow to buy into as a truly in-depth look.  Between fistfights in the printing press and a bar room, gun shots going off in the editor's office and elsewhere, plus at least two of the characters hospitalized by evening's end, the script by the Koepps would much rather entertain than educate, which is precisely the kind of drivel that feeds the tabloid journalism trade. 

One curiosity: for a tabloid paper that prides itself on the catchy, sensationalistic cover story to get people to buy their rag, seemingly everyone involved in the paper (save for the managing editor) tout their credentials as top-level journalists first who always get their story right.  If the film played more as a satire of the industry, this approach might actually work, but serious moments not only creep in, they dominate whole scenes, suggesting we're supposed to take these characters and their foibles as serious business.  Sadly, these moments of heavy drama don't mesh well with the light comedy and slapstick that permeate other scenes.  As we watch a showdown between Alicia and Henry that devolves into a brawl, we wonder why Howard shoots the events as mirthful banter while also giving us the bloodiness and bruises associated with such fisticuffs.

It's hard to completely fault Howard for failing to maintain the proper tone, as it is difficult to imagine anyone being able to adequately corral all of these monumental happenings in the lives of newspaper staff and make it remotely plausible.  Perhaps if the story were solely about the debate between sales vs. truth as set forth by the big story of the day, we might have a tangible movie here worth applauding.  Alas, dolloped onto the backbone of the film are a myriad of pressures to drown out the themes, including Alicia's sexual affairs, Henry's family needs, the editor's inability to establish a relationship with his estranged daughter, and a host of other distractions that would better belong in a television show about the newspaper industry than in a one-shot major motion picture. 

The Paper has enough going for it to amuse and entertain for its two hour duration, so long as you aren't expecting a powerhouse satire or a gripping, through-provoking drama.  The moments that work are spaced just close enough to achieve modest momentum most of the way, only dipping into tedium once we hit the inevitable moment when the soon-to-be-due childbirth scene eventually emerges.  Such a scene might put everything in perspective, as we're supposed to now see that these are people who regularly sacrifice their ability to function as family in order to compete in the daily grind of the news industry.  The unfortunately thing is that none of them seem to be particularly good at what they do, both at work or at home, leading us to wonder how any of them have managed to rise to the top when all of what they touch ends up in a shambles.

Qwipster's rating:

2008 Vince Leo