For a painfully brief period in the 1990s, Ron Howard was one of the best filmmakers working. It didn’t last. The Paper kicked off his run. Howard and the Koepp brothers (I can’t remember for sure, but I think Stephen worked at a newspaper) imbue the film with the traditional Hollywood newspaper movie idealism, but also enough modern cynicism to make the film fit for human consumption. Actually, the traditional Hollywood newspaper has always had the commercialism conflict, in The Paper personified by Michael Keaton and Glenn Close’s printing press fistfight, but along with the rest, it all somehow seems fresh. The rest is Robert Duvall’s aged newspaperman paying the various prices for his life, Marisa Tomei worrying about having her imminent baby with workaholic Keaton, Randy Quaid as a griping, indifferent columnist, and, of course, Jack Kehoe’s search for a comfortable chair. Howard’s special touch was bringing a heartening sense to his films without ever pandering. He could make a movie where a doorman could worry about a tenant in a medical crisis without it coming across as mawkish.
But there’s the technical aspect one shouldn’t ignore. The Paper takes place over a day, twenty-four hours, and while there are occasional visual errors, Howard and cinematographer John Seale do a beautiful job creating that day with wonderful skies. When Tomei is on the street, talking to Keaton on her cellphone, you can feel the warm New York evening. The editing is also very nice–and the Randy Newman score (there is, of course, a Randy Newman song over the end credits too), but the score sets the perfect tone for the film. It’s that extinct drama… the adult comedy.
All of the Koepp brothers’ dialogue is great, so much so, it’s strange David never came back to dialogue-heavy movies. Their characters–and here’s an odd compliment–are just sparse enough the actors can bring defining features to them, since the story doesn’t have any room for them (as written) except as figures moving throughout the story. The newspaper story, the one Keaton can’t get wrong, unfolds wonderfully. The plotting being good, I can figure that one from Koepp, but the dialogue just seems odd coming from him.
The acting is all fantastic. It’s one of Keaton’s best performances, it’s probably Tomei’s best. Randy Quaid’s good in the smallest of the principal roles, but he does get a great payoff at the end. Duvall’s great. Glenn Close probably has the most complicated role and she’s the only one with a eureka moment and she pulls it off. The supporting cast, with Kehoe maybe being the most memorable, is also fantastic. Roma Maffia and Lynne Thigpen being the other two standouts, but they’re all great.
The Paper is largely, I’m guessing because of the cast, forgotten. There’s a lousy pan and scan DVD in the United States and Howard’s shown no interest in the last ten years in forcing an acceptable release. It’s got a place in film history–one of the forgotten films of the 1990s (it won no major Oscars and did not make over a $150 million), an ever growing category and maybe the most depressing–but it really ought to be known for its excellence, not as an entry on a list or as a footnote. It’s a wonderful film.
Directed by Ron Howard; written by David Koepp and Stephen Koepp; director of photography, John Seale; edited by Daniel Hanley and Michael Hill; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Todd Hallowell; produced by Brian Grazer and Frederick Zollo; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Michael Keaton (Henry Hackett), Robert Duvall (Bernie White), Glenn Close (Alicia Clark), Marisa Tomei (Martha Hackett), Randy Quaid (Michael McDougal), Jason Robards (Graham Keighley), Jason Alexander (Marion Sandusky), Spalding Gray (Paul Bladden), Catherine O’Hara (Susan), Lynne Thigpen (Janet), Jack Kehoe (Phil), Roma Maffia (Carmen), Clint Howard (Ray Blaisch), Geoffrey Owens (Lou) and Amelia Campbell (Robin).