FILM / Newspaper movies - the old, old story

I Love Trouble (PG); Second Best (12); Airheads (18); The Shadow (12)
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The Independent Culture
''BECAUSE of you, I remembered how much I love newspapering,'' says Nick Nolte, saluting rival reporter Julia Roberts in I Love Trouble (PG). The word newspapering was new on me, but it has a good ring to it: as if a journalist's job should be to newspaper-over the cracks in society, or, less portentously, to newspaper-in the idle moments of the reader's day. Newspaper movies have traditionally reflected both these views of the press, its venal triviality and its hallowed significance. And I Love Trouble is almost parodically true to the staples of the genre, combining a time-honoured comedy of rivalry and buried sexual attraction with an investigation into a national scandal. Watching the movie is a bit like reading a gossip column that keeps coming on like a leading article.

Nolte plays Peter Brackett, a handsome old hack, who has swapped the treadmill of the daily story for the gravy train: a weekly column, swiftly penned or plagiarised, a spot of novel-writing, publicity touring, even the odd Gap advertisement. Sent by his editor, who has got wise to Brackett's lassitude, to report a train crash, he finds himself scooped by rookie reporter Sabrina Peterson (Julia Roberts). Roberts is clearly a smart adversary, so quick-witted that she doesn't have to be swift on her heels - at least, it's hard to think why else she should wear nine-inch stilettos in a railside field. Both wounded and aroused by Roberts's coup, Nolte chases her to every turn of the story, an escalating scandal, in which they soon find themselves crossing the boundary between reporting and participation.

I Love Trouble is directed and co-written by Charles Shyer, known for featherlight comedies such as Private Benjamin and Father of the Bride. For its first half, it looks as if it is set to match the modest success of those films. Roberts is too delicate for the fast-talking Rosalind Russell reporter role - there's nothing hard-bitten about her, except possibly her nails. But Nolte is grand as her rivalrous pursuer, the rake who is desperate to brush away the autumn leaves from his fading romantic life. His shameless sexism feels more authentic than Roberts's shameful compliance (she smiles, with what we're supposed to take for a glimmer of amusement, when he quips that she's from ``Bitchville''). Shyer's direction is swift and economical in these scenes, even if he overdoes the effect of headlines floating across the screen.

That is more than can be said for his handling of the film's denouement, where the suspense scenes are as flat as last week's exclusive and the climax looks as if it hadn't got beyond the first draft. The comic energy sags and the promising chemistry between Nolte and Roberts fizzles out. I Love Trouble is the second attempt this year to rekindle the newspaper movie (after The Paper). What is striking about this revival is how little rethinking it has involved, how oblivious the film-makers are to the issues confronting the press today. On both sides of the Atlantic newspapers provide a worthwhile target just waiting for film-makers to take aim. Hollywood, by footling around with the formulas of the past, is missing a big story.

In Second Best (12), William Hurt has cast aside his dreamboat physique for a plainer vessel - maybe a sturdy tugboat. His hair is a dark, unruly brush, setting off the drab conformity of his dingy suits and grey woollen tank-tops. He walks with a ponderous shuffle, like an anxious pigeon. And his voice has lost its soft, Ivy League suavity for a halting accent that roams about the English and Welsh regions, settling occasionally in the West Country. Hurt plays Graham Holt, the postmaster of a Welsh sub-post office. His mother has died of cancer; his father lies silent in an upstairs room after suffering a stroke. Perhaps as a result of this loosening of the bonds with his own parents, Graham, whose diffidence and dutifulness have clearly thwarted relationships, decides to adopt a child of his own. The available adoptee is James (Christopher Cleary Miles), an 11-year-old living in care. The film follows the getting-to-know process between prospective adoptive father and son. It is a curious reversal of nature: a sheltered, innocent adult confronted with a worldly child, disturbed and bitter.

Second Best is a careful adaptation of David Cook's novel, but worthy rather than moving. Where the book was able to explore the two principals' experience through their own eyes, alternating the narrative, the film has to rely on incident and performance. Neither Hurt nor Cleary Miles seems quite comfortable. Hurt strives so hard to stifle his innate glamour that he has little energy left for the character. Cleary Miles is best when his fallen-cherub features do the talking; when he opens his mouth his lines can seem forced.

This is Chris Menges's third film as director, after a distinguished career as cinematographer. His debut, A World Apart (1987), also centred on a troubled child, but there the emotion was generated by Jodhi May's extraordinary performance as the child pitched into the turmoil of apartheid. Here Menges is forced to rely on nightmarish flashbacks to convey his characters' scarred pasts and to invest their tortuous present with depth and meaning. It is a brave and thoughtful film, but oddly uncompelling.

That is almost the exact opposite of Airheads (18), which is craven and, as the title implies, vacuous, but often riotously funny. It follows the attempts of a rock group called the Lone Rangers (''You can't pluralise Lone Ranger,'' someone points out) to get a record deal. More by cock-up than conspiracy they end up hijacking the local radio station, where Joe Mantegna, literally letting his hair down, is the influential DJ, the John Peel of the Hollywood Boulevard trash kids. The group is played with goofy charm by Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler, a dim but devastating womaniser. There are becalmed spots, but largely the movie, directed by Michael (Heathers) Lehmann, has a manic comic energy and knowing philistinism which might be described as Tarantinoesque.

Anyone who has heard Orson Welles's demoniac chuckle in the 1930s radio series on which it is based, will be intrigued by The Shadow (12). The Shadow, with his psychic ability to cloud men's minds, was always the most cerebral of the cartoon crime-fighters. Sad then that this adaptation, with Alec Baldwin coasting in the title role, should be so brainless. Overdesigned and underorganised, it hasn't an ounce of Welles's wit or showmanship - a pale shadow indeed.

Cinema details: Review, page 90.

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