Having worked in the alternative-newspaper business well past the historical period during which Village Voice-style periodicals enjoyed their highest degree of sociopolitical relevance, I naturally harbor some romanticism for the idea of scrappy young liberals covering culture and politics in ways that cut against the mainstream grain. Yet even with my predisposition, I found Joan Micklin Silver’s movie about this subject matter, Between the Lines, massively underwhelming. Despite credibility of authorship (screenwriter Fred Barron worked at weekly papers in Boston, where the film is set) and despite a strong cast (many of the film’s young actors later gained notoriety), Silver failed to generate any real excitement. One intrinsic problem is the use of an Altman-esque mosaic approach to storytelling, because Silver lacks the artistry and madness to needed to replicate the controlled chaos of Altman’s pictures.
Another significant issue is the fact that most of the male characters are schmucks who treat women terribly. This accurately reflects the time period being depicted—the ’70s were lousy with studs who shrouded macho egotism behind sensitive-guy posturing—but it’s not much fun to watch dudes demean the ladies in their lives. And, of course, one should not discount the quandary that’s layered into the DNA of real-life alternative newsweeklies, which is the eternal risk of hipocracy. Music critics lambaste Establishment values while accepting free concert tickets; pretentious writers bemoan the inability of the public to recognize good work, while simultaneously angling to get publishing deals; and wide-eyed idealists advocate left-leaning social models even though they’re engaged in purely commercial enterprises.
To its credit, Between the Line touches on all of these themes, but the film does so in such an inconsequential manner that it’s hard to develop any engagement while watching characters debate thorny topics. Worse, Silver proves unable to escalate onscreen events into full-on comedy—Between the Lines may generate a titter or two, but nary a guffaw emerges. In sum, the movie is easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy. As for the plot, it’s painfully predictable—a heroic band of scrappy journalists struggles to maintain integrity after a money-grubbing publisher buys the paper for which they work. Cue blunt conversations about the “death of the counterculture.” Still, the cast is something. The male leads are Stephen Collins, Jeff Goldbum, and John Heard, and the leading ladies are Lindsay Crouse, Jill Eikenberry, and Marilu Henner. Also present are Bruno Kirby, Michael J. Pollard, and Lane Smith. Silver gives each of these actors room to exercise his or her personal style, so Goldblum naturally dominates with his hyperkinetic intellectualism, and Heard grounds the endeavor by staking out the moral high ground (except when it comes to women).
Between the Lines: FUNKY