Soaked in sweat, booze and a number of other more questionable fluids, Lee Daniel’s follow up to the Oscar nominated Precious is best described as a fascinating train wreck. Based on a novel by Pete Dexter, the film is, at times, a barely comprehensible backwater odyssey, ostensibly about a Florida murder investigation, with lashings of dubious social commentary thrown into the mix. Lewd, ludicrous and utterly convinced of its own gritty artistic merit, The Paperboy’s closest cinematic cousin may very well be Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, a film which at least has the benefit of being funny.
Amidst the heat and racial prejudice of the American South circa 1969, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey; Killer Joe), a reporter for the Miami Times, returns to his hometown of Lately, Florida, in pursuit of a story about a grave miscarriage of justice. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack; 2012) is scheduled for execution for the murder of a police officer; a crime, he says, of which he was wrongfully convicted. As Ward looks into the case along with his writing partner, a black Englishman named Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo; Rise of the Planet of the Apes), he hires his little brother Jack Jansen (Zac Efron; New Years Eve) as their driver. But things get complicated when the younger Ward meets Charlotte (Nicole Kidman; Australia), Van Wetter’s tawdry and libidinous fiancé, with whom he quickly becomes enamoured.
From the meandering plotlines and haphazard pacing to the overbearing direction and obnoxious visual flourishes, there’s much about The Paperboy that is plain and simply bad. The script attempts to make up for its poorly defined characters via an amateurish voiceover from the Ward family maid (singer Macy Gray; Domino), who informs us, quite literally, what each and every one of them is feeling. Daniels is equally unsubtle with his direction; after employing visual stylisation to great effect in Precious, his choices here – garish lighting, pointless split-screen, ironic music choices – are painfully ostentatious and distracting.
Yet to merely call the film bad seems unreasonable. The Paperboy is not just bad – it is bafflingly bad, to the point that it’s actually rather watchable. With only a passing interest in logic or context, it’s a movie that devolves almost immediately after beginning into a series of ridiculous and exploitative non sequiturs, most of which are randomly thrown in without the slightest amount of forewarning. Particularly flabbergasting moments include McConaughey in a BDSM game gone violently wrong and an utterly nonsensical revelation about the ancestry of the buttoned-down Acheman. Not to mention, in what is sure to be one of the year’s most talked about scenes, Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron’s face and chest in an effort to neutralize a jellyfish sting.
It should be stressed that none of this madness has anything to do with the murder story or Efron-Kidman-Cusack love triangle. At most, these scenes serve as broad references to thematic notions about race, sexuality and class, ideas which Daniels examines with about the same subtlety and depth that would be achieved if his film was simply ninety minutes of him staring into the camera shouting the words “race”, “sexuality” and “class” over and over again. Combine this ridiculous sense of social importance with the films general batshit insanity, and with time The Paperboy may well be elevated to that elusive pedestal of “so bad it’s good”. For the moment though, it’s more of a bog-bred Frankenstein; repulsive, unnatural and charged by lurid energy, shambling incoherently from one disastrous moment to the next.
The Paperboy was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2012 New York Film Festival.