THE CINEMA, so soft on itself, portrays journalists warts and all. Newshounds are the movies' lowest form of life, even if they possess a wiseacre, gutter glamour. In Milestone's The Front Page and Hawks's His Girl Friday, the hacks are jackals with typewriters; Burt Lancaster's columnist in The Sweet Smell of Success rivals Othello for motiveless malignancy. There's another, more idealistic movie tradition, but cynicism seems truer to today's press, striking to the heartlessness of the matter. Who, now, can watch Bogart in Deadline USA, taunting a gangster, as Bogey's expose of him rolls out ('That's the press, baby . . . And there's nothing you can do about it') without stifling a laugh?
Ron Howard, director of The Paper (15), probably can. He's made a newspaper comedy with all the bustle of the classics, but none of their bite. It records a day in the life of an ailing, mass market New York tabloid. The big story is the murder of a pair of white businessmen. Two black youths have been arrested, but the first scene shows them to be innocent. It becomes a race to get the truth out, rather than the official version. A hack called Hackett (Michael Keaton) fights his managing editor (Glenn Close), begging her to delay the presses. Keaton's wife (a wasted Marisa Tomei) is pregnant, and the final scene switches between hospital doctors rushing to her, and shots of the presses rolling. Howard's message is clear: the press, too, can save lives.
True - and idealistic - enough. But it seems a fond fantasy in an age when tabloids wantonly destroy lives. Somebody solemnly intones that the journalists have never knowingly printed a false story. What paper are they on? The Cloud- Cuckoo-land Sun? Oddly, all the savagery the film can muster is directed at Glenn Close's character, who is unscrupulous, manipulative, and hypocritical. It's a tribute to Close that she makes something rather moving out of this misogynist stereotype of the career bitch. Beneath her smooth exterior, she shows a deep, quivering resentment at her treatment over the years. But by presenting her as a monster, the film discredits her arguments, which are often valid. 'Not everything is about money,' she's told. 'It is, when you almost fold every six months,' she replies, hinting at the perennial battle between pragmatism and truth, which The Paper otherwise disdains.
This simple-minded, soft- hearted approach would be forgivable if the film had a real buzz to it. But, at its centre, it has Michael Keaton, a live-wire actor who never seems to have enough intellectual current running. He goes through his repertoire of tics - waggling those devilish eyebrows - to suggest a man running on adrenalin and instinct, but there's a hollowness behind the staring eyes.
As Keaton's hard-drinking, chain-smoking editor, Robert Duvall has some of the movie's best lines, and gives a fine impression of lumbering disillusionment. But Duvall is just about the most sympathetic actor in Hollywood, so it was over- egging the pudding to saddle him with prostate cancer and an estranged daughter. It's typical of the writing - by the Koepp brothers, David (co-screenwriter of Jurassic Park) and Stephen (a journalist on on Time): which is intelligently workmanlike, without ever catching fire.
Ensemble pieces are hard to direct. That artless, overlapping dialogue requires meticulous rehearsal (only Hawks, and, at his best, Altman, have brought it off). Howard's newsroom scenes are a shambles. The gabbling free-for-alls are phoney (if there are newspaper offices where everybody chatters at once, I've never been in them) and sloppily timed - you can't make out what's said. When their invention flags, the Koepps send in a man shouting: 'Anybody seen my stapler?' Soon you feel like Randy Quaid's underused chief columnist, who fires his gun to shut them all up.
Innocent Moves (PG) is the directing debut of Steven Zaillian, screenwriter of Schindler's List. It's another literary adaptation - from Fred Waitzkin's terrific Searching for Bobby Fischer, an account of bringing up his chess-prodigy son, Josh. Zaillian has a gift for recasting a book's ideas cinematically, and Innocent Moves neatly distils Waitzkin's themes - fathers and sons, playing and winning, inculcating and educating.
But where the book was breezy and compulsive, the film is darker and more deliberate. The chess games are shot in shadowy halls, often with Josh's face picked out in a pool of light. It's a clumsy visualisation of the book's main theme: the obsessive, engulfing loneliness of chess. The game is an art that can become an illness. When Josh's coach, Ben Kingsley, tries to teach him assertiveness at the board, it goes against the boy's placid nature. The intensity required of a great player, it's suggested, is inhuman.
Reinforcing this idea is the figure of Fischer, who appears in archive footage throughout the film. A genius so fierce that he couldn't tolerate society, Fischer is the film's hero and its villain. Josh worships him, narrating an almost mythical account of his career. But there's a touching dissonance between the gawky, grinning Brooklyn face of the young Fischer and our knowledge of his later paranoia. Zaillian's intelligence is matched only by his sweet tooth (he also wrote Awakenings), and he glosses over this in a schmaltzy ending. But Joe Mantegna and Max Pomeranc are excellent as father and son. And the chess is surprisingly dramatic, the slamming of the clocks accelerating like drum rolls, while the tiny combatants sit dwarfed by their pieces.
Johnny Depp plays the title role in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (12), a re-run of his wistful romantic comedy, Benny and Joon, down to the Nowheresville setting and the loopy kid he looks after. We also feel the same unease at mental illness being played for cuteness. The remarkable Leonardo di Caprio, as Arnie, Gilbert's retarded brother, conveys the boy's isolation better in bouts of moody self-absorption and manic laughter than in his crowd-pleasing penchant for pylon-climbing. What's really eating Gilbert is his mother's eating. She's a 36-stone blob, who spends her time parked in front of the television with cartons of popcorn. As Gilbert wavers between married Mary Steenburgen and gipsyish Juliette Lewis, Mum galvanises herself into helping Arnie, and we head for a homily on self- respect. Lasse Hallstrom frames his shots smartly, and the script is witty and well-observed, but like its Iowa-countryside setting, it ends up going nowhere very interesting.
Claude Berri's Germinal (15) is a solid, not to say stolid, adaptation of Zola's novel. Berri has reconstructed the pits of 19th-century northern France down to the last billowing chimney and truckload of coal, pushed by men and women like beasts of burden. But the actors don't meld with the surroundings, which remain a set, and the screenplay is flat and undramatic. As the miner Maheu, Gerard Depardieu has a baffled dignity and slow-burning sense of injustice, even if he hardly fits Zola's description of Maheu as 'petit'. He's overshadowed by Miou-Miou, as his wife, dark eyes fluttering in fear and affront as she begs for food from the aristocracy. Berri toils away at the coalface of the book, hacking out its themes of human dignity and the need to work, without striking through to its glistening core - its bestial violence and vein of black comedy. When the workers march on the mine, Berri's camera is as condescendingly aloof as the pit-owners.
Depardieu's prodigious talents are better displayed in My Father the Hero (PG), where it's not loads of coal that he's carrying, but the film. His bearish charm is the only thing that survives from the film's original French version, apart from the wispy plot in which he has to pose as his 14-year-old daughter's lover. Depardieu shows that star quality and comic timing translate into any language.
Worth catching, in a week of quantity rather than quality, is La Scorta (15), an intelligent Italian thriller, about bodyguards sent to protect a Magistrate in Sicily. It's curiously laid- back, the more powerful for its luxuriant depiction of the balmy lifestyle which their dangerous assignment puts at risk.
Finally, two films vying with each other in absurdity. The Dead Ringers team of David Cronenberg and Jeremy Irons come up with a dead loss in M Butterfly (15), an adaptation of David Henry Hwang's play about a French diplomat (Irons) who has a 20-year affair with a Chinese diva, before discovering that she's a man. Instead of opening out this metaphor for colonial blindness, Cronenberg smothers it in chic.
Prelude to a Kiss (no cert) is about a couple who discover on their honeymoon that she (Meg Ryan) has swapped souls with an old man who kissed her at the wedding reception. He (Alec Baldwin) has to track down the geriatric to retrieve his wife's spirit. Seeing is believing this fiasco, but it's not advised.
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