Saturday, September 1, 2012

Overlooked Gems #40: The Paper

Grade: 77 (B+)

I pick on Ron Howard a lot. A number of movie buffs pick on Ron Howard a lot. And I always feel bad about it: Howard is hardly a bad director, and he has his name on a number of good movies (Splash, Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon). But he’s also the king of making corny middlebrow bores (Cocoon, Far and Away, A Beautiful Mind). To paraphrase the great film critic Mike D’Angelo, Howard is a solid craftsman, a Michael Curtiz or Victor Fleming of his day, with a middle-of-the-road vision whose films rise and fall by the strength of their material. It’s a shame, then, when a weak film like A Beautiful Mind can become a populist favorite where a gem like 1994’s The Paper can be so overlooked.

Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton) is the metro editor for the New York Sun, a little-respected New York paper. Henry is a workaholic whose dedication has secured him an interview with The New York Sentinel (modeled after The New York Times). The Sun’s workforce also includes Bernie White (Robert Duvall), a salty publisher whose personal life has suffered because of his workaholic nature and philandering; Alicia Clark (Glenn Close), a manager editor whose cutbacks have made her the most hated amongst the rest of the staff; Michael “Mac” McDougal (Randy Quaid), a paranoid columnist; and Henry’s wife Martha (Marisa Tomei), a reporter on maternal leave whose relationship with Henry has grown strained and who fears her career will get thrown on the backburner after her child is born. When two young black youths are thrown in jail for the murder of a couple of Wall Street brokers, Mac mentions that his police contact thinks the arrest is bullshit. Henry fights for their case with the help of Mac and Martha, but he butts heads with Alicia, who doesn’t want to risk missing the deadline and who has okay-ed a frong page headline that suggests the teens are guilty.

The Paper was written by the great screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, Spider-Man) with his brother Stephen Koepp, former editor for Time and Fortune. The script makes no pretenses for realism- far too much happens to a tiny paper and its major players on one day for it to be realistic- but rather plays as a pretty much pitch-perfect movie version of a how a newspaper office works, like an even lighter version of His Girl Friday or Broadcast News. The characters are all well-written, well-rounded people, and everyone gets their fair share of good zingers (“When did you get so paranoid?” “When they started plotting against me”). Howard, for his part, does a solid job of showing the ins-and-outs of the paper and otherwise stays out of the way of the Koepps’ smart script; occasionally he overplays the uplift (this is Ron Howard, after all), but otherwise, The Paper would fit right in as one of Howard’s stronger populist films alongside Splash or Apollo 13.

The cast is uniformly excellent, from the minor roles (Jason Alexander as a frustrated government worker, the late, great Spalding Gray as the smug publisher for the Sentinel) to the major ones. Duvall is perfect as the permanently sarcastic publisher dealing with prostate cancer (“Monday’s the perfect day to burn a hole in my ass. Then I still have the weekend”), and Close is even better as a woman who hates being labeled as the bitch of the office but who has a goddamn job to do (“you are so fucking fired”). Michael Keaton, though, is the shining light of the film. One of the most gifted comic actors of his generation (see: Beetlejuice, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, Mr. Mom, The Other Guys, his breakthrough role in Howard’s Night Shift), Keaton kills as a workaholic who believes in his paper and who can’t stand the self-importance of the Sentinel. The film’s best scene: Gray calls him out for stealing a lead from his desk and tells him he lost the job at the Sentinel; “you just blew your chance to cover the world!”. Keaton’s response deserves to go down as one of the all-time great film blowups:

“Really? Well guess fucking what? I don’t really fucking care. You wanna know fucking why? Because I don’t fucking live in the fucking world! I live in fucking New York City! So go fuck yourself!”

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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