The Paperboy * * * 1/2
Director: Lee Daniels.
Screenplay: Pete Dexter, Lee Daniels.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Macy Gray, David Oyelowo, Scott Glenn, Ned Bellamy, Nealla Gordon, Gary Clarke, Faison Love, Grace Hightower.
After his Oscar winning film “Precious“, which was an adaptation of Sapphire’s novel “Push“, director Lee Daniels decides to follow that up with another adaptation. This time it’s the 1995 novel “The Paperboy” by Pete Dexter and another exploration of highly dysfunctional personalities.
Naive reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) heads back to his home town of Lately, where he’s determined to exonerate convict Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), who awaits execution on death row for the supposed murder of a local Sheriff. Ward is accompanied by his brother Jack (Zac Efron), ambitious colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) and flashy seductress Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) – who has a fetish for incarcerated men and Van Wetter is her latest obsession. The murky details of the investigation soon uncover truths about everyone involved and truths that were better left alone.
This is a film that’s very much a mixed bag and it’s easy to see why some people just didn’t take to it. First off, the narrative is disjointed. At times, it doesn’t seem know to which direction it’s going in and the tacked-on, voiceover narration, doesn’t really help matters. In the earlier part there’s humour and it gives the impression that it’s got it’s tongue stuck firmly in it’s cheek. As the film and characters grow, though, it becomes progressively darker. So much so, that it will having you wincing in both disgust and horror. These shifts in tone are less than effortless and also threaten to undo the film as a whole. However, even though the tone is uneven it’s throws up many memorable moments; Kidman urinating on Efron’s face, Cusack and Kidman engaging in masturbation while 10 feet apart and other brutal and shocking revelations, which I’ll allow you to find out for yourself. It’s in these memorable moments that you realise where the film’s strengths lie; the characters are all three dimensional and the brave cast are uniformly brilliant. Efron has come a long way since his “High School Musical” days and looks like proper leading actor material; McConaughey continues his recent run of seedy and risqué roles; Cusack captures the intensity of a loutish psychopath and Kidman is a revelation as an oversexed floozie. Fine support is also delivered by a surprisingly talented Macy Gray and the enigmatic David Olywewo. It’s the very commitment from these actors that has you believing in the material even when their characters’ motivations are not always clear or convincing. Another big player in the proceedings is cinematographer Roberto Schaefer. He captures the searing heat and uncomfortableness of backwoods Florida to perfection while balancing the class divide and racial tension that drips from every pore.
Daniels’ direction may be a little hyperstylised at times and his grasp on the film’s structure is less than convincing. Incoherence does creep in and the film sags around the midriff, becoming in danger of losing itself entirely. At one point, when it should be wrapping up, it throws in further complications and character developments but to give the director his due, he knows how to drop subtle hints without revealing too much, leaving the story’s denouement more satisfying than first thought. There’s no doubt that this is a flawed endeavour but the scathing opinions of it are a little unwarranted – all-be-it, understandable. There is much to admire here. Yes, it’s trashy, tawdry and most certainly deranged but it’s also edgy and unpredictable, which is more than you can say for a lot of studio releases these days.
Sexploitation, exploitation and telekinetic masturbation. What more can you can ask from a film that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a deranged venture into the American south with a committed cast that are game for anything?
This might have been booed at the Cannes film festival but for it’s trashy audacity alone, it deserves applause.