The frazzled, adrenaline-pumped tabloid newshounds in Ron Howard’s The Paper are the bottom feeders of contemporary journalism. Even when they nail a story, they get no respect — and in a perverse way, that lack of legitimacy is what they love about their jobs. (They get a buzz off their own cynicism.) Most of the characters spend their days toiling inside the bustling, fluorescent-lit offices of the New York Sun, a brash Manhattan tabloid (loosely modeled on the New York Post) that’s perpetually on the verge of collapse. The hero, metropolitan editor Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), thinks nothing of coming home at 4 a.m. after a restless night of seeking out the most sensationalistic scoops he can find and packaging them in the gaudiest ways possible (recent stories include a profile of a teenage hit man and a lavishly illustrated series on penile implants). For Henry, news gathering is a horse race, a never-ending game of trying to beat the rival tabs. And the movie, which takes place on one unusually hectic — and pivotal — day in Henry’s life, coasts along on the manic energy of its hero.
Fizzy and fast-paced, The Paper, at its best, succeeds in evoking the raucous, gabby spirit of vintage Hollywood newspaper comedies. The film immerses us in the aggressive camaraderie of the Sun newsroom, where Henry keeps getting jostled by characters like McDougal (Randy Quaid), the paper’s gun-toting, Pepto-Bismol-swilling star columnist, and Bernie White (Robert Duvall), the veteran editor who, for all his cultivated world-weariness, still has ink flowing through his veins. At a daily meeting, reporters and editors laugh at the hype and sleaze of their own stories, and it’s a a kick to watch them devise different versions of the ”wood” — the throat-grabbing cover headline on which the paper’s sales depend. The thrill of a screamer headline is that it’s the editors’ way of holding sway over the news itself, manipulating the importance of any given story by the sheer audacity of how they choose to play it.
For all that, The Paper remains a vintage Ron Howard picture — which by now, after Cocoon, Parenthood, and Backdraft, means that it’s too genial and synthetic for its own good. Though peppered with shrewdly observed details about the way big-city tabloid journalism actually works, the movie, with its tidy ”family” of supporting characters, often comes close to playing like the big-screen pilot for a future television series.
Waking up next to his very pregnant wife (Marisa Tomei), Henry learns that the other papers have scooped him on an explosive story: the murder of two white men in a low-income black neighborhood. A pair of African-American teenagers are arrested for the crime (in the opening scene, it’s revealed that they’re innocent), and Henry gets a chance to scoop the rival papers back when he suspects that the ”racial” homicide may, in fact, have been a setup. Unfortunately for Henry, Alicia Clark (Glenn Close), the Sun’s fierce, budget-minded managing editor, is inclined to go with a different lead story, one that says the suspects are guilty; it’ll cost less money than proving them innocent. On top of that, Henry is being pressured by his wife to abandon the Sun for a more upscale paper, where he could make a better salary for less work. Just this day, he has received an offer from the Sentinel (the film’s thinly veiled version of The New York Times), where one of the unctuously self-important WASP editors (Spalding Gray) assures him that he’ll ”cover the world.” Could any serious newspaper editor turn that down?
Keaton is at his most urgent and winning here. His fast-break, neurotic style — owlish stare, motor mouth — is perfect for the role of a compulsive news junkie who lives for the rush of his job. For all his efforts, though, The Paper is hampered by its warmed-over plot, which seems designed to teach Henry and the audience lessons. Did Duvall’s crusty editor have to have prostate cancer and an estranged daughter to make us care about him? Did Close, with her tensile intelligence, have to get stuck humanizing the latest version of the coldhearted executive bitch? A more central problem is the way the film ends up lionizing the Sun for advancing the cause of honest journalism. Yes, it’s true that there are first-rate reporters who work for tabloids — but more often than not, when it comes to racially charged incidents like the one at the center of this movie, it’s the tabs that make a scurrilous art of inflating (and therefore distorting) tidbits of information in order to sell papers. Enjoyable as it often is, The Paper ends up resisting its own instinctive message: that America’s tabloid newspapers remain rudely vital not in spite of their shamelessless but because of it. B