Directed by: Lee Daniels.
Written by: Lee Daniels & Peter Dexter based on the novel by Dexter.
Starring: Zac Efron (Jack Jansen), Matthew McConaughey (Ward Jansen), Nicole Kidman (Charlotte Bless), John Cusack (Hillary Van Wetter), David Oyelowo (Yardley Acheman), Scott Glenn (W.W. Jansen), Ned Bellamy (Tyree Van Wetter), Nealla Gordon (Ellen Guthrie), Macy Gray (Anita Chester).
A larger part of me than I would care to admit admires The Paperboy. This is the most lurid, ridiculous, violent, disgusting, over the top pulp melodrama to come along in I don’t know how long. But co-writer and director Lee Daniels full embraces this ridiculous story, and fills the movie with the type of visual flourishes that would normally look ridiculous, but somehow completely fits this particular movie. Not only that, but Daniels gets his entire cast of movie stars to completely abandon any pretext of vanity and has them dive headlong into the crazy movie that he is making. He’s going for broke behind the camera, and gets the entire cast to go for broke in front of it. The movie is so filled with logic flaws, with characters doing things that no sane person would even think of doing, let alone going right ahead and doing it, but somehow the actors make you think what they’re doing makes sense at the time. This is the type of guilty pleasure you either roll along with, or else you rip it to shreds. My only real problem with the movie – the one that kept me from enjoying this trash – is that two of the characters frustratingly insist on having real, relatable human emotions that make you feel bad for them. How the hell am I supposed to enjoy this movie when these two keep getting in the way?
The movie is set in the Florida swamps of 1969. Four years earlier, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was convicted of murdering the violent, racist local sheriff and sentenced to death row. No one is going to argue that Van Wetter is a good person – being trailer trash would be an unattainable goal for him – or that he isn’t a violent, horrible person. But, there are serious questions regarding his case – and the fairness of his trial. Two reporters from the Miami Star – Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), a black man from London and Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) come to this small town to try and get to the bottom of it. Ward grew up in this town, and left his newspaper running father (Scott Glenn) and his little brother Jack (Zac Efron) behind. Jack is really the main character of the story – recently thrown out of school, and lounging around the house, Ward hires him to be their driver while they’re around investigating. Two other characters need to be mentioned – the Jansen’s maid Anita (Macy Gray), who narrates the story, and has really been a sort of surrogate mother/older sister to Jack and Ward since their mama ran off. And then there’s Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), one of those women who writes to convicts on death row and fall in love with them. Her latest pen pal is Hillary, and according to her, they two of them share a deep and powerful connection – emotional and sexual – even though they have never been in the same room together. Even though Jack knows this, he still falls hopelessly in love with Charlotte. This is a kid with serious mommy issues.
The Paperboy is full of violent, disgusting and lurid scenes. The one where Jack gets stung by a jellyfish, and Charlotte chases off a group of high school girls yelling “If anyone gonna piss on him, it’s gonna be me”, and then yes, proceeds to piss all over Zac Efron, has already become the stuff of legend – and for good reason. It’s the most ridiculous scene in a movie I’ve seen this year, but damn it, if it isn’t fun to watch it at the same time. But the most outlandish scene in the movie isn’t this, but happens earlier – the first time Charlotte and Hillary are in the same room together, although it’s a prison visiting room and Jack, Ward and Yardley are also there, and the two “lovers” cannot come within 10 feet of each other, and yet still manage to have simultaneous orgasms. How they accomplish this has to be seen to be believed. They movie is full of sex scenes – some that are graphic and violent to boot – and lots of blood and guts (the scene when Hillary’s even bigger redneck guts a gator will haunt by dreams forever), yet still nothing quite compares to that scene for its sheer outlandishness.
What kept me from just rolling with the movie, was that Zac Efron, in the lead role, is kind of dull. I don’t think this is really his fault – and admire this teen heart throb for having the guts to do this kind of movie. I don’t even mind his horrible Southern accent – it simply adds to the outlandishness of the movie. But the character himself doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of this motley crew. He’s really just a sweet kid with abandonment issues that gets in over his head. And then there’s Macy Gray’s Anita. I loved Gray in this movie- she uses her one of kind voice to make Anita into a sympathetic, funny character. But it almost seems like she’s been shipped in from another movie – maybe a better version of The Help – and neither she or Jack belongs with the rest of these people. The movie keeps coming back to them, and ruining the guilty pleasure the rest of the movie was giving me.
The rest of the cast though is pretty fantastic, and obviously having fun with their roles. John Cusack never quite convinced me that he was a gator killing redneck, but he tries really hard. Matthew McConaughey continues his streak of interesting performances in smaller movie – combine his work here with that in Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe, and he is having far and away the best year of his career. All this from an actor I previously thought had little to no talent. David Oyelowo is hilarious and amoral as Yardley (I love the scene where Efron visits him in Miami). Best of all is Nicole Kidman, who I kid you not deserves Oscar consideration for her role as Charlotte. I cannot imagine a person like Charlotte existing in the real world, but Kidman goes completely for broke in the role – wildly over the top, sexy, slutty, sympathetic, hilarious and kind of gross all at the same time. Kidman often doesn’t get credit for all the risks she takes in her career – Charlotte Bless is one of her biggest risks, and she pulls it off.
I cannot say that The Paperboy is a good movie. The movie has way too many flaws in terms of logic for that to be true, including perhaps the most ridiculous finale of any movie this year. When you add in all these logic flaws with the fact that the main character just isn’t very interesting, and in fact distracts from the madness going on around him, The Paperboy is a movie that simply collapses under its own weight. And yet, I cannot say I am sorry I saw the film – or that I am not looking forward to seeing what Daniels does next. He has only directed three films in his career – the god-awful Shadowboxer, the quite good Precious and now The Paperboy. He does nothing halfway – there is nothing subtle about his movies, and he gets his cast to dive headlong into whatever he is doing. This time, despite all the things I admire about the movie, it didn’t quite work. Hopefully next time it will.