There's nothing more difficult than keeping a certain distance when discussing a movie that is set in and around an area with which you are personally familiar. Lawyers have trouble with films about the legal profession, doctors pick away at medical pictures and nobody is more whiny than print critics when sizing up the latest cinematic depiction of the newspaper industry.

Despite its flaws, however, it's hard to be too critical of Ron Howard's "The Paper," the latest ensemble effort from the director of "Parenthood" and "Backdraft."

True, the soap opera machinations get a bit thick, especially toward the end, and Howard tries too hard to cram too much plot into a two-hour movie. What's more, the newspaper in question is a fictional New York City tabloid, which is hardly typical of most newspapers around the country.

But the characterizations, the eccentricities, the feverish sense of pursuing a deadline story and an awful lot of other particulars that show just how defiantly dedicated and frenetically frenzied the members of the fourth estate can be, are dead on.

Moreover, the film, set against a 24-hour period in the life of one newspaper man, is wildly entertaining, with some very funny and exciting sequences along the way. Even if you aren't familiar with journalism, you will no doubt recognize or identify with the high-stress workaholism that permeates "The Paper."

As the film opens, New York Sun metro editor Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton) is awakened by his very pregnant wife, Martha (Marisa Tomei), who is also a newsperson. Henry is still in the clothes he wore the night before, and she's not happy about it. After a Coke for breakfast (he'll have about 10 more before the day is over), Henry is reminded that he has an appointment at a big-league paper later in the day, where he is in line for a more prestigious and better-paying job.

But Henry is more concerned with a story that was fumbled the night before, a Manhattan murder that is not what it seems. And he knows columnist Dan McDougal (Randy Quaid) can get the information needed to scoop the competition the next day, if he can just keep his paranoia in line long enough to go after it.

Meanwhile, managing editor Alicia Clark (Glenn Close) is giving Henry trouble about what should go on the front page, and their boss Bernie White (Robert Duvall), who is ill but still chain-smokes, isn't up to mediating. So, he leaves it up to them to settle the situation, like the bickering children they are.

There are also loads of subplots, from Alicia's manipulations as she tries to emulate the rich and powerful people covered by the newspaper, to Duvall's estranged relationship with his daughter, to Keaton's repeatedly breaking dates with his wife. All are handled deftly, though there is occasionally a feeling that things are a bit too rushed. (This is especially true in a tense restaurant scene, filmed with the edgy style of Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," now most prominent in TV's "NYPD Blue" and "Homicide." Instead of giving us a sense of urgency, it's just annoying.)

But the script, by brothers David Koepp ("Jurassic Park," "Carlito's Way") and first-timer Stephen Koepp (a senior editor at Time magazine), is very sharp, overflowing with witty dialogue and clever ideas.

Howard, after stumbling with "Far and Away," is back in form, and perhaps at the top of his game. There are times when the sheer size of the film seems enough to throw it off the track, but Howard manages, for the most part, to keep things rolling along in his usual slick, if sometimes obvious fashion.

And, of course, it's hard to go wrong with this cast. Everyone here shines, and it's nice to report that Keaton proves his ability to carry a big piece of non-"Batman" entertainment, holding his own against the likes of powerhouse actors Close and Duvall.

"The Paper" is rated R for language, along with some violence.