Review: The Paperboy (2012)
Editor’s Note: The Paperboy opens in limited release today
At the Cannes Film Festival this past May, a minor controversy (so minor only the most dedicated of movie critics, bloggers, and cineastes) broke out over Lee Daniels’ (Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, Shadowboxer) adaptation of crime author Pete Dexter’s 1995 crime-melodrama, The Paperboy. Out of context, the idea of Nicole Kidman—an Academy Award-winning actress—urinating on one-time teen heartthrob Zac Efron raised eyebrows and, as expected, interest in Daniels’ film. In context, there’s little of a prurient nature in the scene involving Kidman’s aging, sexually manipulative bottle blonde, Charlotte Bless, and Efron’s naïve college dropout, Jack Jansen. She urinates on Jack ostensibly to save his life from jellyfish stings acquired on an ill-fated swim. It’s as much, however, about territoriality than it is about sexuality and its nearly infinite permutations.
There’s little about The Paperboy, however, that could be described as straightforward. While the plot superficially turns on Hillary’s prosecution and conviction, The Paperboy often leaves the case behind to explore the characters’ eccentricities, obsessions (usually, if not exclusively, sexual in nature), and depravities, all of which Daniels depicts in lurid, gruesome, and exploitative detail.
Set in 1969 Florida during a hot, humid summer (i.e., generally any summer in Florida), The Paperboy centers around an investigation of Charlotte’s death row pen pal Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), convicted of murdering corrupt, racist sheriff Thurmond Call (Danny Hanemann). Hillary may or may not have been wrongfully convicted, but he’s not blameless or, as we later learn, innocent of lesser crimes. Hillary’s checkered past doesn’t dissuade Charlotte, however (the opposite, actually). She’s made it something of a pastime to correspond with the local penitentiary’s felons, but she’s convinced herself of Hillary’s innocence. More importantly, she’s convinced Jack’s reporter brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) to return to their hometown of Lately, Florida, to investigate Hillary’s prosecution.
Jack (Efron, giving his best performance in a film without the words “High School” or “Musical” in the title) volunteers to drive Ward, his writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), and Charlotte around while they investigate Hillary’s case. In obvious need of direction and focus (the paper route only occupies his mornings), Jack becomes besotted with Charlotte, a potentially dangerous development given Charlotte’s involvement with Hillary and the sexual power she wields like a cudgel over any man who crosses her path. There’s little about The Paperboy, however, that could be described as straightforward. While the plot superficially turns on Hillary’s prosecution and conviction, The Paperboy often leaves the case behind to explore the characters’ eccentricities, obsessions (usually, if not exclusively, sexual in nature), and depravities, all of which Daniels depicts in lurid, gruesome, and exploitative detail.
Anyone familiar with Daniels’ previous effort Precious shouldn’t be surprised, of course. Daniels takes an anti-naturalistic, anti-realistic approach to storytelling. Logic and causality are secondary, even tertiary.
Departing from Dexter’s novel, Daniels makes the Jansen’s housemaid Anita Chester (Macy Gray) not just Jack’s confidante and surrogate mother, but The Paperboy’s omniscient narrator. She not only sees all and hears all, she pulls away from possibly the only sex scene in the film that doesn’t involve coercion or violence. Giving Anita a voice, however, adds little thematically. Instead, it feels like a distraction, a gimmick that overburdens The Paperboy with more thematic weight or subtext than the flimsy central storyline can actually carry. Daniels is far more interested in fetishizing Efron into an object of desire and not just for Charlotte or possibly Anita, but for moviegoers too (women and gay men, specifically). Efron’s more than game to go shirtless or pantless, regardless of the connection between Efron’s attire (or lack thereof) and the narrative context.
Anyone familiar with Daniels’ previous effort Precious shouldn’t be surprised, of course. Daniels takes an anti-naturalistic, anti-realistic approach to storytelling. Logic and causality are secondary, even tertiary. Daniels has shown an impressive, even admirable disinterest in making films that follow traditional rules of storytelling, using melodramatic plot turns and a borderline camp sensibility to make larger points about his characters, their socioeconomic circumstances, and their limited, sometimes twisted worldviews. Even if we give Daniels his due as a filmmaker, however, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to deny that The Paperboy is nothing less than a train wreck, albeit an often gloriously demented, compulsively compelling one.