Film Review – The Paperboy
Sweaty and gross. Those are the first words that come to mind when describing the new overheated melodrama from director Lee Daniels, The Paperboy. While it sports a notable cast with all the ingredients for an interestingly lurid character study, the whole affair ends up feeling a bit empty. I wouldn’t say this is a straight-up bad movie, but I also don’t picture re-watching it anytime soon.
The paperboy of the title is played by Zac Efron, whom the camera frequently lingers over in nothing but his tighty-whiteys. It is Florida in 1969. His older brother, who is visiting home, is played by a somewhat jaded Matthew McConaughey as a newspaper reporter from the north. The reporter, with his British-accented African-American partner in tow (played by David Oyelowo), is doing a story on a slimy convict on death row. There are questions surrounding the conviction of the prisoner, who is portrayed by a purposely repulsive John Cusack. This slimy inmate also has a fan whom he has been exchanging explicit letters with, embodied by a extremely white-trashy Nicole Kidman. Efron’s character has serious longings for her that also seem to be intermixed with some deep-seated Oedipal issues (his own mother is dead). The reporter suspects Cusack’s character is innocent and is looking for evidence to that effect. Meanwhile, the whole story is told in flashback by Macy Gray’s snarky family maid. She is telling the story of how “the murders” happened.
However, that device of telling the story in flashback, like so many things in this movie, is intermittently dropped and picked back up. We are never shown to whom she is telling this story. We assume police, but at one point during a love scene, she comments directly to the audience about how they don’t need to watch the whole thing. So she breaks the fourth wall at one point, but then doesn’t at any other time. Similarly, while the loose plot would seem to hang on the murder mystery, the filmmakers are actually way less interested in linear storytelling. Most of the movie has Efron and Kidman flirting over long stretches lounging in the yard or in a parked car.
The biggest issue is that no one in this film is pleasant at all. They all seem to act disgustingly and behave deplorably all the time. They are mostly gross for grossness’s sake. When Kidman and Cusack first meet in the jail visitation area, they simulate oral sex across the room from each other while the rest of the group there to visit the prisoner is forced to watch. They bring each other to climax without touching. It is an act that is supposed to be erotic and disturbing. It seems the filmmakers were reaching to make it increasingly uncomfortable for the viewer, much like the disturbing scene in the first Bad Lieutenant when Harvey Keitel’s cop pulls over two teenage girls and orders them to simulate acts while he pleasures himself. However, Bad Lieutenant had the engaging actor’s performance to hang itself on. The Paperboy just seems lurid for the sake of being lurid. In fact, when certain comedians get a hold this movie (I’m looking at you, Doug Loves Movies and How Did This Get Made), I’m betting a lot of joke fodder will result from this scene.
Later, there’s a scene with Efron’s character getting stung by jellyfish and Kidman peeing on his face to help him out. A character gets hogtied and whipped for sexual pleasure. Incest and murder—all under a dirty, sweaty exterior—permeate the film. I’ll never be one of these people who needs to have likeable characters in a movie. A work can be challenging, shocking, and disturbing while still being fascinating (see: A Clockwork Orange, most of The Sopranos, Man Bites Dog, etc). Dark material is well worth examining. There are even recent dark examples that The Paperboy tries to emulate. If you substitute the Florida Keys for the Adirondacks, it’s a similar setting to Winter’s Bone’s backdrop of inbred, male-dominated rednecks living in impoverished surroundings. The erratic storytelling with pivotal moments occurring off screen is an attempt to make bold narrative choices in the vein of No Country For Old Men. However, in the former example, we had the dynamic presence of Jennifer Lawrence to help guide us through a rather bleak world. Even the John Hawkes character, while bristling with danger, was a fascinating presence. In the No Country example, the melancholy outcome of the film with key moments not being presented to the audience was surprising and revelatory. It felt like breaking new storytelling ground.
In the case of The Paperboy, while it seems to be grasping for those same settings and themes, we are instead left scratching our heads a bit. The cast is great. And they are all fearless in their willingness to become raw—Kidman in particular. But looking at them, they are all very unpleasant people. This may be a movie worth watching once, but I don’t see many people watching it twice.
Final Grade: C-