'Between the Lines': Film Review

Courtesy Cohen Film Collection
A laid-back look at a very different newspaper era.

A restoration of Joan Micklin Silver's 1977 ensemble drama captures several now-famous actors at the start of their careers.

In the world of dramatic changes a newspaper can undergo these days, being bought by a rich individual with an intense interest in the business is probably the best that staffers could hope for. But it's practically a death knell in Between the Lines, Joan Micklin Silver's 1977 look at a once-muckraking newsroom that has already lost most of its counterculture cool.

Newly restored by the Cohen Film Collection, the light pic will draw attention for a cast full of soon-to-succeed newcomers (including Jeff Goldblum, subject of a Quad Cinema retrospective). But its appearance also raises a question: What happened to the promising-looking career of a woman who made a string of well-received films in the 1970s and '80s (culminating in 1988's Crossing Delancey), but hasn't directed a theatrical release for the last 20 years?

Set in Boston's Back Bay, the pic centers on the Mainline, whose reporters came of age amid antiwar protests and corruption investigations. They've been coasting lately, especially onetime star reporter Harry — played by John Heard, whose relaxed performance suggests the character actor might have made a charismatic leading man in some alternate reality. Heard has an off-and-on relationship with photographer Abbie (Lindsay Crouse), perhaps the least cynical person at the paper; it's one of a couple of amorous entanglements that lend a bit of soapy structure to the film. (Fans who took the death of Ricky Jay as an excuse to rewatch House of Games recently will find that film's star Crouse unrecognizably easygoing here.)

The familiar faces at the office include the put-upon editor in chief (Jon Korkes), the receptionist (Jill Eikenberry), the guy who hawks the paper in the street (Michael J. Pollard) and an ad rep (Joe Morton) who will get to sing briefly in a drunken bar scene. But the movie plants a big flag on Goldblum's Max, a music critic rarely seen without his red satin jacket; the on-the-rise actor tries out eccentric mannerisms throughout, as Micklin Silver relies on his obvious appeal.

Oddly, the member of the ensemble who behaves most like a newbie — a cub reporter trying to break into hard-hitting journalism — is played by Bruno Kirby, who had just appeared in one of the choicest parts anyone in the cast had landed to date, playing the young Clemenza in The Godfather: Part II.

Rumors of the paper's impending sale supply one kind of mild drama in Fred Barron's script; another comes from the efforts of a self-involved writer (Stephen Collins) to get a book contract, and the jealousy his success engenders. But for most of its talky running time, Between the Lines is a hangout film in which too few of the characters are good company. People muse nostalgically about a past we have no access to; they gripe about relationship problems and career aspirations. They talk a lot, and Barron's dialogue is a far cry from the banter of the Screwball era's imagined newsrooms.

The most memorable scenes work better as stand-alone episodes than as part of storylines: Harry and Abbie go to interview a stripper (pasties-clad Marilu Henner, in her screen debut) and argue over who has a better rapport with her; a self-styled performance artist wanders into the office and triggers some dryly comic violence. Those familiar with the Boston setting will spot a one-scene cameo from Douglas Kenney, the Harvard Lampoon editor and National Lampoon co-founder whose work on Animal House was about to redefine what passed for comedy in the movies. Between the Lines, like its protagonists, is waiting out the final moments of a dying era.

Production company: Midwest Films
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Cast: John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Jeff Goldblum, Jill Eikenberry, Bruno Kirby, Gwen Welles, Stephen Collins, Michael J. Pollard, Joe Morton, Marilu Henner
Producer: Raphael D. Silver
Director: Joan Micklin Silver
Screenwriter: Fred Barron
Director of photography: Kenneth Van Sickle
Production designer: Stuart Wurtzel
Costume designer: Patrizia von Brandenstein
Editor: John Carter
Music: Michael Kamen
Casting: Juliet Taylor
Venue: Quad Cinema, New York

Rated R, 101 minutes