It's the fourth film based on The Front Page, or the eighth if you count TV movies. It's toxic waste. I knew it had a poor reputation, but I wasn't expecting it to be radioactive.
Let's run through the original, to show what these people were working with. Journalists in 1920s Chicago go to war with the city's corrupt politicians, but just as importantly with each other. This much-adapted stage play has been turned into two stunning movies (1940, 1974) and another that I don't like but got three big Oscar nominations (1931). It also has famously sharp dialogue.
Things that damage this film:
(a) It's been updated to a contemporary setting. Instead of newspapers, it's set in the world of cable TV news. Thus instead of scummy tabloid doorstepping hacks, we're being asked to believe that TV presenters are going to shake up the establishment, conduct hard-hitting investigations and, um, make a difference to anything. This isn't convincing. However on the other hand I liked their portrayal of the idiot mogul who owned the cable station. He attacks Bert Reynolds for running features that are too long (i.e. one minute) and his only reaction to the biggest scoop of all time is to complain about someone saying "ass". Him I could believe in. Everything else in the movie, no.
(b) The scoop being uncovered by Reynolds and Kathleen Turner is so lurid as to be unbelievable. The miscarriage of justice is so blatant that it strains credibility that any politician could offer up that big a hostage to fortune. His opponent would crucify him. The papers would wipe their backsides on him. A politician (Ned Beatty) running for re-election on a "law and order" ticket wants to execute a man so badly that he'll even go on trying to kill the guy when: (a) the governor's pardoned him, (b) a TV journalist has broadcast an interview which has the entire state screaming for his release, and (c) executing the guy also puts Beatty on the wrong side of a drugs enforcement issue.
"If that Roscoe twerp doesn't fry, I don't get elected." Nope, sorry, I don't get it. Instead you'd expect him to be saying, "Whoops, if we go ahead with the execution, I'll get lynched." In fairness it's conceivable that someone might still have justifiable reason for such talk, but the film makes no attempt to provide any.
(c) Later, at the finale, Beatty says incriminating things to reporters standing next to a TV camera. This man is a professional politician.
(d) The governor is going to pardon Roscoe at 11pm, so Beatty moves the execution time to 10pm. Our heroes try to phone the governor in an attempt to save a man's life. "Sorry, he's taking a nap." ...whereupon they give up and make no further attempts to contact him, leave a message, have the flunkey wake his boss, etc.
(e) Kathleen Turner. I normally like Turner. She's in Serial Mom. However here she begins the film with what's surely the worst acting of her career, presumably trying to justify some dialogue ("she's cracking up"), then later doesn't overcome the many obstacles that the film's putting in her way as an actress.
(f) Christopher Reeve's character. I'm fond of Reeve generally, but every moment of his screen time here made me want to run and hide. The film's unwatchable when he's around, which is frequently because they've written him lots of scenes that aren't in the original stage play. His relationship with Turner made me cringe and his scenes with Reynolds are little better. He's good at being a massive, chiselled hunk who reminds you of Superman, but he's playing against type and not doing well at it. He later regretted making this film, saying he "made a fool of himself" and that he'd only done it to distract himself from depression after a divorce. He'd accepted the role partly to work again with Michael Caine, but then Caine dropped out after production delays on Jaws: The Revenge. He also found himself having to act as "referee" between Reynolds and Turner in...
(g) The off-screen feuding. Some bite is appropriate in this story, but...
TURNER - "my unhappiest experience as an actress... For whatever reason, the first thing Burt said to me was: 'I've never taken second billing to a woman.' ... Oh, every day there were nasty little digs.... He later accused me of trying to get him sacked every day."
REYNOLDS - "When I see Kathleen Turner, I get physically ill. If we seemed to get along well on screen, it's damn good acting."
(h) Reynolds's role. In some ways, I quite like him here. He's got the juiciest role and he's capable of seeming like a bastard when he wants to be. However he's not evil enough. He's mean to Reeve, but in the third act he genuinely appears to be motivated by public interest and there's no conflict at all between him and Turner. They're two minds with but a single thought. Ironically, they were fighting too much in real life to have enough chemistry for the fighting they needed to be doing on screen. Mind you, I think that's partly the screenplay and partly Reynolds not being a particularly thoughtful actor.
(i) Most of the third act has been reduced to business with a photocopier.
Things I liked:
(j) The TV mogul.
(k) Mollie Molloy being the defence lawyer, which is a logical tweak.
You could argue that it's unfair to compare this film with other versions of The Front Page, but in 1988 it shot itself in a different foot by being released a few months after the similar but far more successful Broadcast News. That film went on to get seven Oscar nominations.
This film I hated. I'd sooner watch the 1931 one
a hundred times than sit through this again. I'm pretty sure I'd be able to find a more balanced appreciation of the original, whereas this one will never be other than appalling. The copier stuff is annoying. The Beatty character is annoying. Your intelligence will be insulted as it's rarely been insulted before. This film was nominated for two Razzie Awards, Worst Actor for Burt Reynolds and Worst Supporting Actor for Christopher Reeve, and the only pity is that it didn't get more. The notes that I was writing as I watched contain obscenities.
If you've never seen any other version of The Front Page, you'll like this film better than I did. That's the highest praise it'll get from me.