Synopsis: A sexually and racially charged film noir from Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious), The Paperboy takes audiences deep into the backwaters of steamy 1960s South Florida, as investigative reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) chase a sensational, career-making story. With the help of Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) and sultry death-row groupie Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), the pair tries to prove violent swamp-dweller Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was framed for the murder of a corrupt local sheriff. Based on the provocative bestselling novel by Pete Dexter (Mulholland Falls, Rush), The Paperboy peels back ay small town’s decades-old faade of Southern gentility to reveal a quagmire of evil as dark as a Florida bayou.
The Paperboy 7.25
eyelights: its cast. its plot.
eyesores: its tone.
“If anyone’s gonna piss on him, it’s going to be me. He don’t like strangers peeing on him.”
‘The Paperboy’ is a 2012 Lee Daniels film based on the novel by Pete Dexter. Told from the perspective of Jack, a failed young swimmer, it follows his older brother Ward and his colleague Yardley, both reporters for The Miami Times, as they investigate what they believe to be a wrongful murder conviction.
Set in 1969, in the southern parts of the United States, it’s as much about the investigation as it about the racial and sexual dynamics between the characters; though Jack has a fond relationship with Anita, his family’s African-American maid, he begins to see the prejudice around him and within himself.
The picture star Zack Efron as Jack, with Matthew McConaughey as Ward, David Oyelowo as Yardley, John Cusack as Hillary, the convict, Nicole Kidman as Charlotte, the woman trying to get Hillary released, and Macy Gray as Anita – who is not only the maid, but also the narrator, recalling the events.
Frankly, I wasn’t intrigued by the picture when it came out. Zack Efron? No thanks. And I hadn’t heard much to recommend it, really, despite the attention it got in light of Daniels’ previous film, the critically-acclaimed ‘Precious‘. It’s only when I heard that it had a naughty side that I reconsidered it.
Seriously, I really don’t know what to make of ‘The Paperboy’.
At its heart is an interesting plot: it balances Jack’s growing crush on Charlotte with the investigation itself, both of which become more complicated as the picture carries on. But the tone is so out of whack that I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to take any of it seriously, or if it was all tongue-in-cheek.
I mean, one of the first scenes of the picture is of Jack lying on his back in his bedroom, in his tidy whiteys, and telling Anita she should knock before coming into his room because he could be “jerking off”. Then they jibed each other and playfully reversed roles, with Anita doing the same back to Jack.
Next thing we know, Charlotte’s on the scene, dumping boxes full of documents for Ward and Yardley to go over, including her steamy letters to Hillary – leaving Yardley bemused. When we find out that she’s convinced of Hillary’s innocence because of a telepathic link that they have, it only gets odder.
Jack is charged with driving Charlotte around and they go park outside the jail so that she can be near the man she loves. Just being there gets her all worked up and she expresses her sexual desire so overtly that she looked and sounded like she got her cues from bad porn or… ahem… exotic dancers.
This leads to an utterly absurd scene in which the lot of them have an appointment with Hillary and try to interview him, but he rudely interrupts them to do the equivalent of phone sex with Charlotte – but chained to a chair, two meters from her. They essentially groan and moan at each and get off on the spot.
WTF. WTF. WTF.
And that’s just to start the picture. It’s all so deranged that you have to stifle your laughter. I probably would have found this stuff hilarious when I was a teenager, when similarly outrageous fare like ‘Wild at Heart’ drew me to the cinema and punched holes in my psyche. But this is no ‘Wild at heart’.
And no amount of screaming sex between John Cusack and Nicole Kidman can change that.
Yardley is so beside himself watching all this stuff that he becomes a surrogate for the audience. He seems to have his head together: he doesn’t let the bigotry, the seediness or the flakey behaviour, derail him from his goal. But he obviously wishes that he were in a differently reality altogether.
Sometimes, watching ‘The Paperboy’, so do we.
Ward is also a decent personage, always keeping his cool and trying to assuage tensions when they build. His only intention is getting at the truth, whatever it is – and, trying to free a wrongfully-convicted man. He’s a good person. But, for all the surface nobility, he has his own surprising secrets.
Everyone does, including Yardley. Everyone in this picture has their flaws, their blemishes. The only person who doesn’t appears to is Anita – so it’s only natural that she would be the storyteller, recounting the events to us as she knows them, with an understanding of context and sympathy for those involved.
The cast’s performances are uniformily excellent; there’s nothing bad anyone could say, even though the behaviour is sometimes a little off the wall, dialed up. My only complaint, surprisingly enough, is with John Cusack, who made Hillary seem more lost than sinister even in his darkest moments.
Speaking of dark, there’s a terrible turn of events 2/3 of the way in, involving Ward. This one came out of nowhere, with no forewarning – and it was brutal. Given the semi-comical tone of the picture thus far, I found this rather unpleasant – especially since its aftermath stayed with us until the very end.
I think that it could have been handled differently.
The same could be said for Jack’s swim and jellyfish attack; it was so ridiculously-staged that even what should have elicited dread felt like a joke. Then the subsequent treatment and the dialogue surrounding it only served to turn the whole thing into a farce. Honestly, it’s jaw-droppingly stupid.
It’s WTF beyond words.
Again, it’s all about tone. I’m sure that the book plays out more like a gritty pulp novel, but the film version of ‘The Paperboy’ borders on the absurd. It looks the part, it has a terrific cast, and at its heart is an interesting plot. But the end result is so outrageous that it’s hard to take it seriously.
Could it be a future cult classic, perhaps?
Date of viewing: January 4, 2017