Tabloids are a ripe subject for satire, and The Paper knows it. Print journalism, long a staple of movies from The Front Page to All the President’s Men, now jazzes Hollywood less than the glossier TV variety (Broadcast News, Switching Channels). But the tabs can still give shows like Hard Copy and A Current Affair a run for the sleaze. The Paper sweeps us into the comic chaos of the New York Sun, where the harried, headline-hunting staff is starting “one horrendously shitty day.” Though it’s a stifling summer morning, crafty cinematographer John Seale (The Firm) makes it look hotter inside this glass-enclosed jungle of desks, fans, files, phones, computers and rampaging egos.
Michael Keaton, at the top of his manic game, plays Henry Hackett, the Sun‘s metro editor. From the moment this caffeine junkie hits the office, you can feel his frenzy. As Henry tells editor-in-chief Bernie White (the superb Robert Duvall), “Every day I’m behind from the minute I get up.” You don’t expect director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer — partners on such benign jokefests as Splash! and Parenthood — to catch the mad-dog anarchy of the newsroom. But they nail it.
What’s missing is the bite. After a scrappy start, The Paper settles for throwing softballs instead of sticking it royally to sacred media cows. What a shame. The script by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way) and his brother Stephen, a senior editor at Time, is onto something juicy about stretching ethical standards to produce an insidious form of entertainment called tabloid truth. Think Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt or the Michael Jackson scandal and you get the picture.
Henry’s way out is a job offer from the Sentinel, a great, gray New York Times-like institution that offers smug respectability. His pregnant wife, Martha (the ever-entrancing Marisa Tomei), wants him to take it. But Henry thrives on the vulgar integrity of the Sun, where — gross headlines and gory photos aside — the facts are served up in quick, terse bites to an audience of commuters. Or are they? Henry sees the corners being cut to stay alive in news that feeds on sensationalism. “Not everything’s about money,” Henry tells the Sun‘s managing editor Alicia Clark (Glenn Close at her bitchy best), who snaps, “It is when you almost fold every six months.”
A morning story conference in which staffers pressure Bernie for space in the next edition is pointedly hilarious. The biggest battle is for the “wood” — the Page One story. Henry wants to follow up on a racially motivated murder of two white businessmen in the black neighborhood of Williamsburgh. That’s old news to Alicia, who favors a subway derailment. “Nobody died,” says Henry, dismissively. But art has grisly photos of the mangled bodies. “That helps,” says Alicia, smiling in sweet victory.
Humanity has no place at these meetings, but humor does. An editor complains that the thick smoke in Bernie’s office is responsible for the nicotine in his urine. “Then keep your dick out of my ashtray,” cracks Bernie, who reads a story lineup that includes Nazis marching in New Jersey, a who’s-banging-who chart about Hollywood and a series on penile implants.
Howard draws zesty performances from a cast that includes Randy Quaid as a paranoid, gun-toting columnist. But Close and Duvall fare best at bringing stock figures to vibrant life. Bernie, the twice divorced workhorse with a prostate the size of a bagel, warns Alicia about trying to live like the glamorous people the paper covers: “You’ll never keep up. We just don’t get the dough. Never have, never will.” He tells her to get used to being loathed; she’s paid to “have 700 people doing the work that they need 2,000 for at Newsday.“
The Paper delivers best when the laughs pack a sting. Henry learns very late that the two black teens arrested for the Williamsburgh killings didn’t do it. He’s eager to damn the cost and stop the presses. Alicia would rather stop Henry: “We taint them today, we make them look good on Saturday — everybody’s happy.”
Will Henry cave in or fight on? Howard lacks the stomach to ride the script’s darker turns. His business is crowd pleasing; that leaves issues to evaporate in farce. Henry and Alicia slug it out in the press room. Later, there’s a brawl in a bar. Instead of acting, the cast does pratfalls, or worse, sinks into sentiment. Scratch any hard case and you’ll find a softie spouting family values. It’s all slick, fizzy fun. But the film’s fighting spirit gets snatched. Howard violates a cardinal newspaper rule: Never bury the wood in the comics.