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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'The Paper': It's All in the Delivery

March 18, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Who remembers the great writers of the city room?" a disgruntled reporter was once moved to complain. "In a single generation they are one with Nineveh and Tyre." A sad fate, and one newspapers themselves, dismissed by heartless futurists as road kill on the information superhighway, may someday be forced to share.

But even if everyone else gives up on newspapers, Hollywood never will. Not for nothing has Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's "The Front Page" been made and remade three times. At least once a decade the movies fall in love with the romance of print journalism, and the studios' latest crush, "The Paper," directed by Ron Howard, shows the reasons why.

The story of a single day in the life of a great, albeit fictional tabloid, the New York Sun (motto: "It Shines on All"), and Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), its God-I-love-this-business metro editor, "The Paper" is rife with the motion and commotion that characterize all newspaper films. With their insistence on what's timely and their fear of time running out, deadline-crazed daily papers have a built-in thrill-of-the-chase quality that the movie business understandably finds irresistible.

That kind of manic "get-that-story" energy is especially suited to knockabout comedy and, when "The Paper" relaxes and concentrates on jolt-a-minute madness, it's as crowd-pleasing as "Parenthood," Howard's most-successful ensemble venture to date.

But Howard and screenwriting brothers David Koepp & Stephen Koepp (one a "Jurassic Park" writer, the other a Time magazine senior editor) are not content to make us laugh. They are determined to thrust as many serious moments into this picture as it can take, and it can't take very many at all.

"The Paper's" breathless doings begin with a brief prologue showing a pair of black teen-agers in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn discovering a car containing two slain white businessmen and, via a bit of bad luck, becoming prime suspects for the crime.

Henry Hackett is also introduced not at his best, waking up fully clothed (don't worry, he's been chasing stories, not women) next to his extremely pregnant wife, Martha (Marisa Tomei). She's a former Sun reporter who has quit the paper for motherhood and days full of worry.

Martha is especially concerned about an interview Henry has with the tweedy New York Sentinel, an upscale place that runs headlines like "Nepalese Premier Won't Resign" while the Sun concentrates on murder and mayhem. Martha wants him to forsake his tabloid roots for security, but Henry, not surprisingly, is not so sure.

Once he gets to his office (whose tip of Manhattan location is patterned on the New York Post as surely as the Sentinel is on the New York Times), it's obvious why Henry hates the thought of leaving. For the Sun is staffed entirely by lovable comic eccentrics, zany types like a gun-toting columnist named McDougal (Randy Quaid) and a reporter who cares more about his orthopedic chair than any story he's ever worked on.

Since this makes staff meetings as hectic as a Marx Brothers movie, it's the newspaper situations that are the most consistently entertaining parts of "The Paper," never lacking for laughs even when Henry leaves the building and goes for that interview with a stuffy Sentinel editor (deliciously played by Spalding Gray).

Policing the zoo at the Sun are a particularly odd couple. Editor in chief Bernie White (Robert Duvall, engaging even when he's coasting) is Henry's mentor, a crusty troglodyte who barks more than he bites. Glamorous managing editor Alicia Clark (Glenn Close) is Henry's bete noir, a bottom line-oriented ice queen whose motto is "if everybody loves you, you're doing something wrong."

The problem of the day for this group is deciding whether that unlucky pair's arrest for the Williamsburg murder can command the front page. Henry, who's heard rumors that even the cops disown the bust, doesn't want to ruin the boys' lives if the story is wrong. So Bernie gives him five hours to prove what the audience already knows, that the kids didn't do it.

While this would be enough for most movies, it's not for Howard and the Koepps, who toss prominent subplots to everyone within reach. Bernie is given a malignant prostate "the size of a bagel" and an estranged daughter, Alicia has worries about her career and her looks, McDougal has a vengeful city parking commissioner on his trail, and, of course, Henry has a career crisis as well as a wife who fears, like the first Mrs. Charles Foster Kane, that she may have to name the paper as a co-respondent.

That welter of incident, helped by lively acting, especially from Keaton, who despite the ensemble nature of things really carries this picture, means that at minimum "The Paper" never stops for breath long enough to be dull.

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