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‘The Paper’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1994

You may need a vacation after seeing "The Paper." Covering 24 wired, workaholic hours at the Sun, a scrappy, fictitious New York tabloid that specializes in headlines such as "WELCOME TO NEW YORK: YOU'RE DEAD!," it's an exhausting and exhilarating movie about the birth of "the daily miracle." Thanks to a caffeinated cast and hyperactive script, director Ron Howard delivers "The Paper" with a bang.

The lead story on this sweaty, summer city day: Two black teenagers discover the scene of a bloody double murder, which has been made to look like a racial reprisal. The kids are arrested and framed, and metro editor Michael Keaton, working on a tip that they're innocent, plunges into a career-threatening near-slapstick race against time (and against his boss, who wants to go with a time- and money-saving story, even if it's wrong) to get the elusive quote that will make the difference between a headline that screams "GOTCHA!" or one shouting "THEY DIDN'T DO IT!"

Newspapers may be going computerized and corporate, but they still attract colorful characters, and "The Paper" is no exception. Meet the staff of the Sun:

Keaton is an appealingly impatient, Coke-addicted editor who wakes up fully dressed and bone-weary once again, but clearly thrives on the round-the-clock pressure. He's being courted by an arrogant, Times-ly uptown daily (he thinks it's a secret, but everyone knows: "It's a newsroom, Henry," says a colleague), which doesn't much appeal to the old-fashioned newshound in him. But he's also a family man, pressured to take the more sedate, 9-to-5 job by his very pregnant wife Marisa Tomei. A sharp reporter herself, Tomei's feeling edgy about abandoning her vital career for what she fears will be the invisibility of motherhood.

Keaton has a sparky rivalry with Glenn Close, the paper's nakedly ambitious managing editor and the movie's heavy. Close is finding that her journalistic instincts are at odds with the paper's bottom line, and she's feeling raw about being frozen out of the newsroom's old-boy camaraderie. There's also Randy Quaid as a paranoid, pistol-packing columnist, a Character among characters in the newsroom, and cadaverous, crusty Robert Duvall, as the unhealthy and driven executive editor, who, as the end of his career nears, realizes he doesn't know the story of his own life.

This is a see-it-again movie, if only because the first time around you might miss vivid cameos by Jason Alexander, Catherine O'Hara, Spalding Gray, Jason Robards and others, and walk-ons by a dozen or so journalists, including Bob Costas, USA Today's Jeannie Williams and MTV's Kurt Loder.

Written by most-wanted screenwriter David Koepp ("Jurassic Park") with his brother Stephen Koepp, a senior editor at Time magazine, "The Paper" goes "Broadcast News" one better, with its insider behind-the-bylines banter. Crackling with irreverent energy and callous wisecracks, it's accurate to a fault about the details of newsroom life -- the creative clutter, the inky black humor, the petty internal politics and paranoia, careerist climbing, arrogance and vanity. Oh, yeah, and the dedication, professionalism and ingenuity, too.

Howard directs it all with a deadline drive of tension, humor and barely-controlled chaos, and is rewarded with spunky performances with a brisk, tossed-off feel. He manages to follow the human interest sidebars without losing sight of the lead story, tracking each of his main characters out of the office and prying into what remains of their messed-up lives beyond the newsroom.

Aside from its hot story, "The Paper" delivers a refreshingly unsensationalized accounting of how news gets into the paper, and even a micro-moral about journalistic responsibility, as these professionally distanced newsies are confronted with the human impact of their work. And the nice-guy director of "Parenthood" can't resist getting in a few op-ed shots about What's Important in life as well.

"The Paper" has lots of great movie moments, but the most memorable is when Keaton actually gets to yell the immortal line "Stop the presses!" As Quaid tells him, "How many times in your life are you gonna get to say it?"

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