News Junkies Race The Clock

COMPRESSED INTO A FURIOUS 24-HOUR time frame, Ron Howard's giddily entertaining newspaper comedy The Paper mimics the pressure-cooker rhythms of deadline journalism. It starts with a casual, jokey tension that as the day progresses turns increasingly manic, escalating by nightfall into full-pedal frenzy. This tightly coiled farcical structure is just what Howard needed after the dull sprawl of "Far and Away." He's back on the crowded, seriocomic turf of "Parenthood," and the collective commotion of the newsroom brings out his best showbiz instincts.

The paper in question is a financially strapped New York City tabloid called The Sun. Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), the metro editor, has been offered a cushier job at the stuffier uptown Sentinel (i.e. The New York Times) and his pregnant wife (Marisa Tomei), a reporter herself, wants him to go for the bigger bucks. Today is decision day. But what's troubling him even more is the breaking page-one story, the arrest of two young black men for the murder of two white businessmen in Brooklyn. Convinced they're innocent, he's determined to get the story for the morning edition, but it's a race against time. He has to do battle with his nemesis, the aggressively unhappy, penny-counting managing editor Alicia (Glenn Close,), his increasingly freaked-out wife is convinced she'll be on her own once the baby is born; he's got a paranoid, gun-carrying columnist (Randy Quaid) sleeping in his office; and the paper's crusty editor in chief (Robert Duvall) is too preoccupied with his prostate problem and the wreckage of his personal life to help. All these pressures come to a melodramatic boil that has more to do with Feydeau than with the realities of journalism. But even when "The Paper" gets a little too slapsticky silly, it's always fun to watch.

Writers David Koepp ("Jurassic Park") and Stephen Koepp, a senior editor at Time, pay lip service to such themes as work versus family and journalistic ethics, but no one will mistake this for an in-depth portrait of tabloid journalism. (Given the current furor over the dominance of tabloid scan-dalmongering in all journalism-an issue the movie doesn't take up "The Paper" is oddly untimely.) What they do capture, with wit and pizzazz, is the ulcer-producing surface of newspaper life-the competitiveness of the story conference, the controlled chaos, the thrill of the news chase. Their real subject is the adrenaline rush that keeps these journalists hooked to their jobs like junkies, making mincemeat of their private lives.

Howard watches over these driven, obsessive characters like a benignly mischievous master of ceremonies: there are no real villains here. His big, impressive cast (which includes Spalding Gray, Jason Alexander and Catherine O'Hara) responds in kind. Led by Keaton at his breezily manic best, the actors seem to be having almost as good a time as we are.