Review: The Paperboy


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Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron. A little before that, she spreads her legs, tears her pantyhose at the crotch for the camera, and then simulates a beejer while moaning. Later, she gets raped for a couple minutes. These are all acts of degradation endured by an actress who’s brave enough to see a movie through to the bitter end. That’s a true pro.

It’s too bad the movie is The Paperboy, Lee Daniel’s trainwreck follow-up to Precious.

For a while I thought The Paperboy would be a great double-feature with Brian De Palma’s Passion. The De Palma picture was trash too, but in a campy, almost so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. The Paperboy is rarely fun. By the end, any vestige of entertainment is gone, replaced with exasperation. The movie aims for profundity even though it wallows in the gutter. It wants to be art, it’s dreck at best.

The Paperboy
Director: Lee Daniels
Rating: R
Release Date: October 5th, 2012 (limited)

Bravery is admirable in actors. It shows a commitment to craft, and one thing I can’t hold against the cast of The Paperboy is their reckless bravery. Everyone rushes into this burning building with a dynamite vest covered in fuses and gasoline. Kidman plays against type and submits to her sexually charged and psychologically damaged character. Matthew McConaughey mostly keeps his shirt on and acquits himself well, and the same goes for David Oyelowo. Efron is pretty bland, but the material does him no favors so it’s not his fault. And then there’s John Cusack, who’s essentially playing Nicolas Cage on bath salts. In another movie, these characters might have something great to do. At first you expect this to be a cousin in common shared by Wild Things and Raising Arizona, but it turns into a self-important Floridian Gummo. Those brave souls, those poor brave souls.

The movie’s set in 1969. Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack) has been sentenced to death for a crime he may not have committed. Two ambitious journalists, Ward and Yardley (McConaughey and Oyelowo), come to clear his name. Charlotte (Kidman), a woman obsessed with writing letters to inmates, might have the key to getting Hillary out. There’s Jack (Efron) as well, Ward’s younger brother, and he gets peed on because he’s stung by jellyfish. (That’s a myth, by the way, about peeing on jellyfish stings. You’re really supposed to remove any attached jellyfish tentacles with an object other than your hands and then pour vinegar on the wound. If you pee vinegar, however, you should see a doctor.) Oh, and there’s Anita (Macy Gray), the maid in Jack’s home, who narrates the movie for some reason.

Beyond on all this, I can’t really say what happens plotwise. Not because of spoilers. I can’t say what happens plotwise because I don’t really know what happened in the movie. They discover some key evidence in the case, but I can’t recall what it was and I don’t much care. Daniels doesn’t seem to care either, so key moments like that piece of evidence become overshadowed by urine and rape. It’s almost like trying to describe an object seen through a warped pane of glass. What am I looking at again? There’s just an outline but no details.

The Paperboy is a baffling display of bad decision after bad decision. By the mid-point of the movie, you wonder if anyone else sensed that the production was going from arsty trashy to plain junk. Daniels had originally approached Oprah Winfrey to play the Macy Gray role and Tobey Maguire for the Cusack role, so maybe their respective Spidey-senses tingled about the impending fiasco. On the plus side, I’ll at least say that the film occasionally looks okay with its attempt to pastiche the movies of the period. It’s grainy, though more in an Instagram way than anything else. It’s not really edited in the same way as those films, however. It’s pieced together in an extremely haphazard way where material just doesn’t really flow or stick together.

Haphazard is a good way to explain most of the camera angles as well, though most of them are meant to emphasis Kidman’s crotch, butt, and breasts. It’s not as much fun as it sounds, fellas. The same goes for the emphasis on Efron’s crotch, butt, and chest. Sorry there too, ladies. Think less sexy and more perverted and leery, like you’re watching the movie in a booth wearing a trenchcoat and nothing else. The movie is as sexy as a short, curly hair on the dinner table.

The tonal shifts and inconsistencies of character highlight the slapdash quality of The Paperboy. There’s just a general lack of focus. In one scene, two characters find a loved one beaten near to death in a sordid sex game of some kind. In the next scene that takes place a few hours later, the same two characters playfully joke about having sex as if someone they cared about didn’t just go to the emergency room. It’s a movie that wants us to take its ideas about racial integration and sexual identity seriously even though both are only dealt with in passing. There’s the reckless bravery of Kidman’s simulated blowjob at odds with an air of supposed artistry. Daniels caps the scene with a freshly minted semen stain on the inner thigh of a character’s pants. It’s a Rorschach test for the movie. Some see The Paperboy as a seedy and unflinching work of lurid Southern Gothic, others just see smelly wet cum.

The movie’s an adaptation of a novel by Pete Dexter, who co-wrote the screenplay with Daniels. I haven’t read it so I can’t say how close it sticks to the book, but Daniels admits he added material about race relations in the 1960s. It shows. Prior to tackling The Paperboy, Daniels was developing a Martin Luther King movie about Selma, Alabama. (Oyelowo would have played MLK.) The material about race is a tacked-on aside. It occasionally informs the skimpy plot, but it feels like it’s from another movie, and a much better one than this. Daniels should continue pursuing the Selma movie with Oyelowo, because he’d probably deliver something more passionate and more personal than this gonzo melodrama.

There were a few times during The Paperboy where I tilted my head like a confused mutt and then quietly sighed. This became more frequent as the film limped on, but by the end, I’d stopped moving my head so much and just squinted at the screen. I’d bundled all my confusion and frustration into the space behind my eyes. Had a camera been on my face during the screening, I could probably pinpoint the exact moment where the movie went from campy fun to sleazy junk (that’d be very early on), and from sleazy junk to just a series of sequential events which provoked no emotional investment, not even focused hate. Once the last line is recited and the final shot ends, The Paperboy was not a movie I’d just watched but a thing that had just happened.

A few reviews out there for The Paperboy have gotten pretty nasty, not just about the movie but the audiences for the movie. It’s just a few, though. That goes for positive reviews and negative reviews for the film. Those ugly negative reviews try to paint the film’s defenders as pervs with bad taste and the positive reviews try to paint the film’s detractors as snobs with sticks jammed somewhere. It’s really not worth trashing anyone over The Paperboy, except Daniels who seems like he has nothing but contempt for his characters for much of the film. But still, don’t make it personal. Divine trash might be worth the effort and the affront, but not ordinary garbage.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.