A rambunctious look at a day in the life of a struggling New York tabloid, “The Paper” is Paddy Chayefsky lite. With every member of the all-star staff battling personal life crises as they race to put the next edition to bed, Ron Howard’s pacy meller can’t help but generate a fair share of humor, excitement and involvement, even if it veers off the tracks in the final reels with some contrived, over-the-top theatrics. Good cast and the usual Howard/Brian Grazer instinct for entertainment value should translate into B.O. that rates page one, if perhaps below the fold rather than a banner headline.
Likable, underdog status of nearly the entire cast of characters is fixed from the outset, as the New York Sun is established as a financially precarious sheet (in the mold of the real-life Post and Daily News) desperately trying to hold head above water in tough economic times, even if it remains the sixth-largest daily in the nation.
Setting the wheels and presses in motion this hot summer day is the brutal murder of a pair of white men in a parked car. Two black teens who were glimpsed at the scene are quickly arrested, and the paper’s forces mobilize to fan the city’s racial tensions by putting the youths on the front page with the headline “Gotcha!”
But, as they used to say, there are 8 million stories in the naked city, and this movie’s got a few of them. Under pressure from his mucho pregnant wife, Martha (Marisa Tomei), to get a better-paying job, Sun Metro editor Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton) halfheartedly interviews at the snooty N.Y. Sentinel (read Times), where he sneaks a look at the note pad of his would-be future boss (Spalding Gray) and steals some key info for the Sun.
Crusty old-school editor Bernie White (Robert Duvall) hacks through a staff meeting before getting the bad news about his prostate cancer from his doctor. After trying to reconcile with his resentful daughter (Jill Hennessy), he repairs to a bar for the rest of the day, leaving the paper in the hands of managing editor Alicia Clark (Glenn Close), who finds the time for a hotel quickie with her lover and prepares for a showdown over her contract that night with her publisher (Jason Robards).
Putting together clues based on the filched tip, Henry and rumpled staffer McDougal (Randy Quaid) conclude that the teenagers about to be branded killers are innocent and the hit was actually the work of the mob.
This leads to sniffing around for leaks at police h.q., Henry missing a dinner with his wife and in-laws intended to celebrate his new job at the Sentinel and, after deadline has long since passed, a pitched battle between Henry and a royally p.o.’d Alicia over which front-page story will roll off the presses.
It’s at this point that David and Stephen Koepp’s screenplay begins careening in unsafe directions. Close’s intensely physical brawl with Keaton, motivated solely by her desire to save money, brings out her “Fatal Attraction” hissability. Thereafter, everyone joins their boss in a local bar, as if they were congregating for an episode of “Cheers,” where a city official is laying in wait with a gun for McDougal, who made him look bad in print. Everybody goes a little crazy, but somehow the Sun will rise the next day with a measure of tattered glory intact.
At the moments when it becomes most antic and tries to propound truths about journalism and human nature, “The Paper” unavoidably recalls a watered-down version of such Chayefsky classics as “Network” and “The Hospital,” in which prominent and pressurized institutions underwent the knife as wielded by one of the day’s foremost verbal surgeons.
There’s nothing here nearly that incisive or outrageous, and the main feeling one comes away with is that what ends up in a newspaper everyday is almost a matter of accident.
But even if the vitriol runs thin, the film does have some juice coursing through its veins along with the ink. Howard keeps the cynical dialogue coming and the scenes punchy, making for a generally lively, if somewhat hokey, outing. He’s handsomely helped by his uniformly talented actors,all of whom snap out the lines, good and bad, like the crafty pros they are, although they aren’t hitting any unfamiliar notes. As could be expected, a bunch of cranky individualists fill out the briefly drawn supporting staff of the paper.
Visually, film is kept interesting and airy by virtue of the newsroom’s location on a high floor of a Lower Manhattan building that’s all windows, which means that almost anywhere lenser John Seale points his very mobile camera, there’s a dramatic panorama of New York backdropping the action. All other behind-the-scenes contributions are solid.