Raiding the Past

What damages The Hudsucker Proxy more than anything else is that the raw material from which it was constructed doesn't jibe with the Coens' sensibilities. Frank Capra and Preston Sturges didn't shy away from irony or darkness, but they didn't wallow in them, either. Their world views were optimistic; they had faith in the little guy and in the essential goodness and decency of the world that produced him. The Coens don't. Which is why, when Norville becomes the recipient of eleventh-hour divine intervention, and the movie falls blessedly silent as honest-to-goodness "magic" enters to save the day, it's hard to be carried away by the wonder of it all, because you keep hearing a weird, annoying sound inside your head -- the sound of two brothers snickering.

I guess you can't escape your origins. How else to explain why former-sitcom-powerhouses-turned-movie-directors (Garry Marshall, Penny Marshall, Henry Winkler, Rob Reiner) make movies that are brimming with sharp jokes, good intentions, and human warmth, but ultimately feel like nothing more than really good TV shows? Ron Howard's The Paper is a perfect case study. Co-written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Carlito's Way) and his brother Stephen, a former newspaper reporter and a current Time editor, it follows 24 hours in the life of a brawling big-city tabloid perpetually on the brink of collapse.

All the timeworn newspaper movie stereotypes are in place -- including the supercompetent metro editor (Michael Keaton), his bean-counting boss (Glenn Close), the paper's vaguely thuggish publisher (Jason Robards), and the slump-shouldered, gruff-yet-tenderhearted, I'm-too-old-for-this editor in chief (Robert Duvall). The film invents a few new stereotypes, too A the best of which are the street-savvy Latina cop reporter (Roma Maffia), the panicky neophyte photographer (Amelia Campbell), and the half-nuts, half-brilliant investigative-reporter-turned-Jimmy Breslinish city columnist (Randy Quaid, whose early Eighties wardrobe, lanky body, high forehead, and mean little eyes suggest Frankenstein's monster reincarnated as a burned-out high school teacher).

The Paper starts slowly, introducing its major plot thread (two black kids are wrongfully arrested for the murder of two whites -- can the fourth estate find out what really happened?) and layering it with sharp details. I especially liked how the grungy, cigar-puffing, unionized press room guys refuse to take last-minute orders from anybody below the rank of God, and the editors' wiseguy banter about what makes a good tabloid headline ("Just once, can we run one without an exclamation point?"), and some great throwaway lines ("All," intones Duvall, "of this newspaper's columnists...need...to...shut...the fuck...up!").

After an hour or so, the picture picks up steam and threatens to turn into something special A the most playful yet thoroughly adult movie of Howard's career and a fine newspaper flick. Then it lapses into depressingly familiar sitcom tics A cutesy confessions, love-me monologues, overdone slapstick, and dreadfully forced visual metaphors. (The climactic sequence, which intercuts the production of a morning newspaper with the birth of a child, is the strongest argument in favor of studio interference I've seen recently.)

This is a movie that can't make up its mind what it wants to be -- a drama, a comedy, a farce, an urban epic, a satire, a cop thriller, a domestic melodrama. The movies that The Paper uses as source material at least picked one or two very distinctive objectives and chased them with vigor, and their directors didn't feel threatened by the prospect that viewers might have to struggle to keep up. (The dialogue in Deadline, USA and His Girl Friday and Sweet Smell of Success zips by so fast, and conveys so much information, that trying to digest it all can give you an adrenaline high.)

Worse is the movie's condescending attitude. Everything is underlined twice. Howard and the brothers Koepp apparently don't trust viewers to grasp anything without help; they must believe we're incapable of figuring out that a character has just done something crazy or unethical or noble unless they highlight it with swelling music or transparently "chaotic" camerawork or a noxious speech. After a while, the whole enterprise doesn't even feel like a really good TV show any more. It feels like a show you'd rave about to friends on first viewing, then keep forgetting to tape.

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