The story of The Paperboy‘s world premiere is now infamous within the world of film. Lee Daniels’ adaptation of the novel by Pete Dexter opened at the 65th Cannes Film Festival in May 2012 to boos and utter contempt from critics. For some reason the people who had loved Michael Haneke’s beautiful and heartbreaking Amour didn’t feel quite as strongly about a film that sees Nicole Kidman pissing on Zac Efron’s face. They dismissed Daniels’ film as mere trash that sits mostly in the camp, er, camp. I can sort of understand where they were all coming from. After my first viewing of The Paperboy I couldn’t quite believe what I’d just seen. Although, I’ve thought about it a lot since and I think I’m coming round to this outlandish and darkly comic film noir.
The Paperboy takes audiences deep into the backwaters of Southern Florida during a particularly sweltering Summer in the late 60s. Journalist Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) take on one of the biggest challenges of their careers and investigate the possible wrongful arrest of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). They are followed by Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) and Hillary’s oversexed penpal-cum-fiance Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) in their quest to uncover the truth about the murder of a corrupt local sheriff.
There can be no denying that The Paperboy is pure trash. It contains some of the most outlandish scenes you could possibly ever see performed by a cast of such big Hollywood names. After the much publicised moment of beach urination we have the challenging scene that sees Charlotte bring Hillary to orgasm in a prison visiting room full of people, despite the fact that pair are being kept apart. It’s a ridiculous and fairly uncomfortable scene that is played more laughs than anything else. It tells you all you need to know about the death row groupie and her potentially violent soulmate.
Nicole Kidman is scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of good taste but she manages to pull off her best performance for many years. She completely embraces the troubled Charlotte and manages to keep a glimmer of sympathy beyond the psychological scars and sensuality. Charlotte enjoys the effect she has on the men she enjoys lewd long-distant connections with and gleefully plays on Jack’s interest in her. Yet we see the occasionally glimpse of the woman who is aware of the mistakes she has made and is pained by the damaged individual she has become. It is easy to see why even The Paperboy‘s harshest critics have nevertheless praised the memorable part Kidman played in it.
The rest of the cast also pull of fairly convincing and superb performances. John Cusack is deliciously creepy as the perverted and violent death-row inmate. His portrayal of the possibly innocent Hillary is monosyllabic, disturbing and completely against Cusack’s normal role. It makes for great if pretty awful viewing. Matthew McConaughey has pulled off an amazing transformation in the last few years from forgettable, topless rom-com star to serious actor. Thanks to recent performances in Magic Mike and Killer Joe he is now viewed as a key player to watch. He does a good job with the incessant reporter who hides a dangerous secret life from his brother. Although I’m still not utterly convinced by McConaughey as an actor. This is mainly thanks to a scene towards the end of the film when a drunk Ward gets so tangled up with his slurred drawl that it all becomes a little bit farcical. Efron does a fine job as the innocent young man who finds himself obsessed by the unsavoury Charlotte. He doesn’t get the same level of gritty material that is offered to his co-stars but he brings an ignorant vulnerability to the college dropout. Efron is another Disney graduate who is keen to shed his angelic teenage image but he has still yet to fully prove that he has much worth beyond the looks that pulled him through the High School Musical films, especially when he spends much of the film wandering around in his underwear for no particular reason.
Well for no reason that aids the plot anyway. Answering a question put to him at Cannes concerning Efron’s lack of clothing, Daniels’ happily explained the decision by declaring “Because I’m gay and I like it”. It is Daniels’ habit of making the film in a certain way because he likes it that causes it to lack cohesion. I’m more than happy with his decision to create a story about unsavoury characters and explore the darker side of humanity but his direction doesn’t bring focus to the narrative more than it distracts the audience. We are offered a selection of overused devices that try to pull this gloriously trashy story into something more arty: slow motion, split screens, blurry dream sequences, slow motion and incessant water imagery. The film just becomes slightly confused about what it is trying to be. There is no real sense that it knows what tone or style it is trying to convey. And I can’t believe that I’m the only one who tired of Macy Gray’s gravely voiceover very early on. Her role of Anita was surprisingly good but her commentary on the events just seemed unnecessary.
However, there has been a lot of intense hatred towards the film and more than enough criticism. The Paperboy is the kind of film that takes some getting used to. I think if I saw it again I would enjoy it for what it is: a trashy film noir that is unashamed to continually throw its outrageousness at the audience. Had Daniels taken his role a little less seriously and taken a more jovial approach to his direction the film would have felt more complete. The Paperboy almost knows what it is supposed to be and has fun introducing you to its lurid plot. If nothing else, I hope it starts a trend in Hollywood for filmmakers to get as many people as possible to piss in Zac Efron’s face.