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‘The Paper’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1994

"The Paper" perfectly captures the hubbub of the nation's newsrooms, where amid the clatter of keys, the babble of reporters and the clarion of phones, deadlines are met and the daily is born. It's a miracle that director Ron Howard cheerfully compares to the birth of a baby, which isn't all that farfetched when you consider that newspapers are also delivered.

His analogy isn't easy to miss, what with New York Sun reporter Marty Hackett (Marisa Tomei) ripe as a seedpod in her last month of pregnancy. She has put her career on hold to start a family and is more than a little jealous of her husband, metro editor Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), who is still obsessed with the feisty tabloid. Henry promised to spend more time at home, but from the opening frame -- he's in bed in yesterday's work clothes -- it's obvious that he's not quite ready for fatherhood.

A compelling comedy-drama like Howard's 1989 "Parenthood," the film is truly an ensemble piece in celebration of family. Though in this case, its members are linked by the printer's ink in their veins. They're colorful, dead-on re-creations of newspaper types who still thrive on mugs of joe and deadline stress.

Some, like the Sun's chain-smoking patriarch, Bernie White (Robert Duvall), are dinosaurs torn from "The Front Page," while others, like Henry and folksy columnist Dan McDougal (Randy Quaid), are more contemporary.

A former reporter, flinty managing editor Alicia Clark (Glenn Close), is the Hot Lips Houlihan of journalism. While the filmmaker's treatment of the character is downright sexist, Close gets even by stealing the movie. Among other achievements, she bloodies the leading man's nose in a pressroom fistfight. The two are at each other's throats over how to play the Sun's lead story about two black kids who have been wrongly arrested for murdering two white tourists in Brooklyn.

Henry begins to suspect that the young men have been set up, but his attempts to get at the truth are complicated by his wife's phone calls, his staff's needs and his job interview at the Sentinel, a gray lady that ignored the tourist murders to run a story headlined "Nepal Premier Won't Resign." Of course, Henry's just not cut out for bow ties and suspenders, which becomes clear in his interview with the self-important editor (a hilarious Spalding Gray) of the stuffy broadsheet. "Cute little paper you got there," he condescends to Henry, who gets back at him by stealing a tip for the tourist story right off his desk.

As the story canters on toward its too-schmaltzy outcome, Howard's film starts smelling like the manure-rich "Mayberry R.F.D." Otherwise, there's little to complain about in terms of "The Paper's" performances, tempo or tone.

Without his bat regalia, Keaton is winningly hyper, and he's nicely foiled by Tomei and Close. The supporting cast is top-notch, from Jason Alexander in a tiny but pivotal role as the city's edgy parking commissioner to Duvall's Bernie, who is estranged from his wives and children and afflicted with "a prostate the size of a bagel."

Aficionados of newspaper classics will find that "The Paper" is no "His Girl Friday." Forty-five years since Howard Hawks made "The Front Page's" Hildy Johnson a woman, Ron Howard still thinks women belong in the nursery instead of the newsroom. Screenwriters David Koepp of "Jurassic Park" and his brother Stephen (of Time magazine) are witty and on target in terms of character, but their message in terms of male and female relations is a prehistoric one. Not that anybody's going to stop the presses over sexism in Hollywood.

"The Paper" is rated R for language and sexual innuendo.

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