[NOTE: The following is something I worked on sporadically for a while, as a way to understand more about how I work inside a relationship (any relationship, generally, but with my wife, specifically). Only then I watched The Paper again recently and just couldn't shake how much I relate to the experiences of the characters in that movie. So pretty soon after, all of the relationship stuff I was ruminating on started to get entangled with the relationships in the film, and, voila, this essay is the result. Some of the personal introspection wound up on the cutting room floor in favor of focusing more on the film and how it's relatable to a wider audience than just me. Hopefully it's not too disjointed, this bizarre mix of amateur film appreciation and even-more-amateur self-analysis. Depending on your patience for reading about movies you might not care about and musings on my own shortcomings, your mileage may vary. That said, enjoy! Maybe?]
When I was younger I became a massive fan of The Paper, directed by Ron Howard and starring Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, and too many more to mention. For years it seemed like no one knew this movie, but now that Keaton’s big again I’ve seen it popping up around the margins, so it may be ready for a reappraisal from the critics (“A lost classic.” — Michael Campochiaro could be the blurb on a future Blu-Ray edition; I’m offering that up in case anyone at the studio is reading). It’s a huge ensemble cast and it’s filled with terrific acting and witty dialogue—it’s crisp and sharp and sings in a way that feels very real (think the opposite of anything David E. Kelly’s ever written—the dialogue in this movie actually sounds like what real people would say). I know entire lines of dialogue from this movie and they’re often swirling around in my head. My friend Dan and I quote it all the time, to the annoyance of everyone in the vicinity.
The film is set during a day in the life of Keaton’s character, Henry Hackett, who works at a second-tier New York newspaper. It’s from the early 1990s, the era right before people stopped reading newspapers and started getting their news online. So it’s sort of a relic of the recent past in ways that blow my mind because I can’t believe how much has changed and just how fast its changed. But don’t let that stop you; besides some clothes and a few references to certain pop culture events of the time, this movie really hasn’t dated at all. Because it presents the working life in a way that’s pretty timeless. If you work with people everyday as part of your job, especially in an office setting of some sort, and you face deadlines and pressures to produce every single day, as most of us do, then you will relate to this movie. I’ve made my career in publishing, and there are a lot of similarities between the newspaper office and the publishing house office. Lots of frantic last-minute work being done in order to meet impossible deadlines. So while I loved this movie as a teenager, I’ve only grown to appreciate it more as an adult because I can relate to it in different and deeper ways now. And not just for what it gets right about the working life, which I’d like to write more about another time, but also what it says about personal relationships, which really represent the core of the movie. The relationships between friends and colleagues (who are often the same people) and husbands and wives and parents and children and on and on. Henry and his wife Martha’s marriage has always reminded me of my relationship with my wife. And as we’ve become parents, the similarities to the Marty-Henry pairing have only gotten stronger. And not always in ways that flatter me.
One of my favorite lines in the movie comes from Robert Duvall’s character, Henry’s boss Bernie. Henry’s looking to Bernie for advice on whether or not he should take a cushier job uptown with more security, better hours, less insanity. The thing is, Henry loves his current job and he feeds off the insanity of the work environment, so the possibility of losing that is scaring him. But he knows the new job would be huge for Marty and their burgeoning family—Marty’s expecting their first child any day now. She made sacrifices for their relationship and now Henry is struggling with just which sacrifices he’s willing to make. So finally, Bernie tells him, “the problem with being older is that people think of you as a father figure, when really you’re just the same fucked up asshole you always were.” Keep in mind I was a teenager when I saw this and had no clue just how true those words were. They’re eerily true to me now. Working and being in a long-term relationship and raising kids means the pressures only intensify, so having any idea of “wisdom” or any such bullshit flies right out the window. You’re just getting through it sometimes. The Paper opened my eyes to this when I was younger, and since then I’ve actually lived it.
So throughout the film, Marty and Henry have a series of conversations that revolve around how becoming parents is going to bring more drastic upheaval to their lives, about Henry’s prospects of getting that new job, about how isolated and alone Marty feels being pregnant and not working (she used to work at the same paper with Henry but is out on leave as she nears her due date), about how present—or not present—Henry is in their relationship, especially with regard to the day-to-day decisions that need to be made. He’s consumed with everything in his head, all the time, so his work, his wife, his unborn child, it all weighs on him. He keeps pushing it all around in his head though, just long enough each time to make room to focus on something happening now, right now, because that and sarcasm are his coping mechanisms. Justifiably, this is driving Marty crazy. These series of conversations culminate in an exchange between them outside the restaurant where they’re supposed to be having dinner with his visiting parents and instead he’s just told them all that A.) he lost the new, cushier job offer uptown because he stole a lead from the editor’s desk and B.) he has to run to get a quote for a huge story that absolutely has to go to press that night. This leads to the argument outside the restaurant and it’s one of the best examples of how partners in a relationship can be so completely in and out of sync all at the same time. First, the scene is so well acted by Tomei and Keaton that you believe they’re really having it out. They’re that good together in this movie. Here is part of their exchange:
Henry: You’re shouting, first of all.
Martha: I know I’m shouting! I like to shout! Don’t you notice? I keep talking louder because you haven’t heard!
Martha: You don’t listen! You don’t see!
Henry: I am listening. Of course I see. Hi. [waves to a stranger on the street, nervously trying to defuse the situation] See what?
Martha: How scared I am.
Basically, The Paper shows you that any relationship takes work. And Henry hasn’t been putting in enough work on his end lately, instead channeling his energies into work. I think we can all relate to that one. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, not intentionally, but it’s happened. And Marty’s fears about raising their child alone are very real because her husband can be emotionally elsewhere even when he’s in the same room. Been there, done that too. I bet you have also. Stress can really exacerbate our worst tendencies towards getting lost in our own heads.
This reminds me of another quote from Duvall’s character. He says, basically, that because you have so much stress to deal with in your life, with your family you figure you can get some human leeway, so you dump all over them. Because you figure they can take it. We all do this. Most of us never do it intentionally, but it happens. And that plays out in the film between Marty and Henry in ways that are relatable for all of us. For all of the wonder and joy associated with being pregnant, it’s also incredibly scary. And a mother’s stress is unlike anything a father will go through because she’s literally bringing the baby into this world. And then on top of that, mothers have this unbelievable love for their children coupled with guilt over missing being a member of the working world, of having that outlet to interact with adults and play an important role at work. In Marty’s case—and my wife’s case too—it’s a temporary loss of employment, but that doesn’t make it any less real or challenging. And Henry realizes that as the film careens towards it’s final act (I won’t spoil things, but I’ll say it’s a happy ending—still, watch it yourself). And I realize it too, every day. And even though I might go a bit “Henry” now and then—and be consumed by too many concerns that are jockeying for attention inside my head—I’ll always be there for my wife. During their heated curbside discussion, Henry says, ”I swear to God I will be there. We mean more to me…than anything else.” Then a series of events make it clear to Henry that sometimes you actually do have to stop, let the other madness around you fade away, and just focus on your priorities. It’s a balancing act and some days the balance is completely out of whack, but on others it’s just right. Those days are like the end of the movie, when you’re with the most important person(s) in your world and for that instant, nothing else matters.