starring: Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray
written by: Lee Daniels and Pete Dexter
directed by: Lee Daniels
MPAA: Rated R for strong sexual content, violence and language
Imagine Godard directing The Help as a swampy psychosexual murder mystery and you might come close to picturing the oddity of The Paperboy, eccentric director Lee Daniels’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning drama, Precious. While some directors choose to follow their acclaimed breakthrough films with similarly prestige-seeking productions, this is definitely not Daniels’ intention here; rather, he has swung in the other direction and made a defiantly weird, luridly explicit little piece of pulp fiction. Based on the novel by Pete Dexter, The Paperboy is a showcase for Daniels’ stylistic directorial flourishes and some uncommonly brave acting by two major stars, but ultimately amounts to little more than a series of perverse moments strung together with little consequence.
The film begins very abruptly, before we’ve even seen a studio card, with a shot of Macy Gray slouching at a small table. Yes, after playing a terrifying back-alley abortionist in For Colored Girls, Gray is back in the acting saddle; she tried to say goodbye, but she choked (sorry). Gray plays Anita, a maid being interviewed by police detectives about matters with which we will soon become acquainted. She narrates the story in flashback, taking us back to a time in the ’60s when she worked for the Jansen family, acting as a second mother to young Jack Jansen (Zac Efron). Jack’s older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), who works as a reporter in Miami, comes home to investigate the case of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a death row inmate who may have been sent there unjustly. Ward is accompanied by Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo, as smugly unlikeable as he was in Rise of the Planet of the Apes), who is perceived unfavorably by the locals due to being an educated and well-dressed black man with an English accent.
Ward and Yardley are assisted in their investigation by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a death row groupie who writes ardent love letters to men behind bars. Charlotte is convinced that she and Hillary are meant to be together, and will do anything she can to support Ward’s journalistic efforts to exonerate him. Jack quickly becomes infatuated with Charlotte and starts looking for ways to insert himself into the proceedings. Efron finds himself playing a similarly aspirational interloper to his character in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles; perhaps this is because Efron himself evinces a vibe of wanting to play with the big boys but lacking the chops. Jack manages to snag a position as their driver, joining them on several unsettling trips to visit Hillary in prison. He also begins spending time alone with Charlotte, although she is mostly humoring his crush. Still, she is fond of him, and they form a sweat-stained little family with Ward as the group continues uncovering the truth about Hillary.
And that’s all I’ll say about the plot, because to write more would be to show more interest than the film does. Daniels, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dexter, does not seem terribly concerned with his narrative. I wasn’t even clear who the protagonist was intended to be until the final moments. Right from its informal opening shot, the film’s overall tone is one of looseness bordering on apathy; Daniels’ direction is jazzy and psychedelic, presented in a grainy low-budget manner that suggests a lost B-movie from the period it depicts, but with dashes of florid artfulness, like the Deep South as filtered through the French New Wave. It succeeds in making the audience feel the stultifying heat pervading every bedroom, pool hall, and swamp shack we encounter; the art direction effectively evokes the heightened period details.
The performances vary from mixed to great. Efron comes the closest he yet has to becoming a real adult actor, but doesn’t quite get there; still, his boyishness is appropriate for the character, and he lets the openly gay Daniels strip him to his underwear for 80% of his screen time, so I ain’t mad. Macy Gray certainly has presence, but is miscast (or, given that we’re talking about Lee Daniels, stunt-cast) in a pivotal role; she is just too bizarre and specific of a performer for this part, and arguably the worst choice in history for a voiceover narrator. What, Mama June wasn’t available? The bone-chilling Cusack is more grotesque than we’ve ever seen him before. McConaughey continues his much-discussed 2012 renaissance with yet another bold, risky character choice; this is the softest and most vulnerable we’ve seen him, and he plays it beautifully. He also goes three for three at showing that sweet ass this year, so again: I ain’t mad.
But the real star of the show is Kidman, once again proving she is at her best when extremely uncomfortable. This is the bravest work she has done in nearly a decade, since toplining Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. And, of course, “brave” is really code for sexually explicit and revealing. She does things on camera that very few actresses of her stature would do, and she does them with committed fearlessness. She has the same symbiotic relationship with Daniels she’s had with the other provocative auteurs with whom she’s worked, from Von Trier to John Cameron Mitchell to Baz Luhrmann. Hopefully we’ll again continue to see more of this Nicole Kidman, because she is one of the greats.
The Paperboy is an oddity, but it’s an intriguing oddity. It is simultaneously leisurely and lurid, with ample graphic sexuality and horrific violence despite the molasses-thick atmosphere and pacing. It plays with the theme of romanticizing danger, particularly with Ward and Charlotte, but ultimately seems to hold its story in low regard. Still, Daniels continually ups the ante with increasingly disturbing sequences that only grow more shocking as the film goes on, right through its closing moments. It may be half-cocked and uneven, but at least it’s memorable.
The Paperboy opens in San Francisco today.