Director: Lee Daniels
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack
Worst video-game-to-movie adaptation ever. This movie had nothing whatsoever to do with the 1984 Atari game. There was only one scene of someone delivering papers, then it was about something else completely! Score: 0/10
Okay, yeah, I’m sorry about that. Couldn’t really resist. Call it my inner troll. The Paperboy is of course not based on a video game, but rather on Peter Dexter’s novel. He takes screenwriting duties here, along with director Lee Daniels. Between them they have fashioned a strange and messy fable of lost truths and fractured families set in the simmering humidity of Florida circa 1969.
And, yes, this is the movie where Nicole Kidman gives Zac Efron a golden shower. Urinating on the poor boy to save him from jellyfish stings. The Paperboy will be remembered as that movie. It’s a shame really, as there are other things of note here. And no, not all of them are positive, but Daniels’ movie has a few things going for it, certainly enough to make it worth a look.
It opens with Macy Gray giving an interview at an unknown time to an unknown person. She plays Anita, housemaid to the Jansen family, whose stock in trade is the newspaper business. Youngest son Jack (Efron) is a general dogsbody in this regard, having initially set his sights on a career as a professional swimmer until an angry decision put an end to his scholarship. He yearns for his absent mother.
These yearnings, along with his adolescent randiness coalesce into a heady froth when he meets Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a Southern belle with a steady streak of trailer trash to her. She is helping Jack’s older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) investigate a potential miscarriage of justice. The imprisoned is Charlotte’s beau; leering backwater psychotic Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack). The stage is readily set for all manner of sordid twists and turns.
What you might expect, at the very least from this set up, is some fun. A little sleazy, a little sultry. Before seeing The Paperboy I was expecting something that might stand as a companion piece to the likes of Killer Joe or Wild Things – another down and dirty, tawdry romp in the gutters of tabloid America. However Daniels’ movie never quite achieves this. There are moments for sure. Charlotte’s first encounter with Hilary is the film’s real absurd ace, trumping that jellyfish scene by quite a distance. In it the oddball couple bring each other to climax at a distance of twelve feel whilst Jack, Ward and Ward’s associate Yardley (David Oyelowo) squirm all around them. You’ll not see anything like it this year, and full props to Kidman for her committed performance. You can practically hear John Waters tittering in the audience.
However for the most part The Paperboy plays it straight, taking itself incredibly seriously. Trouble is, it’s hard to view it with the same sense of gravity that Daniels keenly wants us to. Nobody treats The Sun newspaper like a daily edition of War And Peace. What proves a further hindrance is Daniels’ decision to evoke the era by aping the auteur filmmaking of its time. So we get some acutely forced angles, sloppy handheld camera work, jarring edits and indulgent fades. The likes of Nicolas Roeg and Mike Nichols have nothing to fear from Daniels; what he ultimately achieves is simply a messy film. It’s a little distracting.
The events presented also feel decidedly like first draft material, and perhaps the most surprising credit of all here is author Dexter’s. The film mutates between genres awkwardly, giving the feeling that there are actually several films in here, and it’s creators aren’t sure which one they’re making. Likewise, some of the narrative decisions feel as though they simply haven’t been questioned. The film is almost all viewed from Jack’s perspective, right? Then why is Anita our entry point and narrator? Tonally, structurally, The Paperboy is all over the place.
Fortunately, we have a clutch of excellent performances here, not least of which comes from the aforementioned Kidman. Playing very much against type, it’s hard to tell if she’s pushing for caricature or total sincerity, but either way her Charlotte is a riveting car crash, as hysterical as she is simply sad. Cusack’s slimy villain will likewise live long in the memory, whilst McConaughey is as good as he was in Killer Joe, showing off a purple patch in his career that I hope continues at this superb level. Oyelowo also steals his share of the screen as the constantly put-upon Yardley.
And Efron? He doesn’t embarrass himself, but he struggles to meet the might of the work around him. If anything he’s at his best when working with McConaughey. There are a lot of distractions here – The Paperboy takes aim at journalistic integrity, racism, broken homes – but the film is at its most affecting when it zeroes in on Jack and Ward. They are the real trump card. The real ace. With everything else ringing in your ears, theirs is the relationship that ultimately rings true.
If it sounds like a mess, then, well, it is. You’re right. However for all it’s missteps and follies The Paperboy is never ever boring. It’s harder work than you might expect, but there are rewards here, enough to justify giving it your time. In spite of – and sometimes because of – the film’s scrappier elements, you can rest assured that your attention will be maintained to be bitter end.
It’s rather like biting into a piece of fresh-looking mango, only to find it’s gone over slightly. It fizzes on the tongue and you’re not sure if it’s good. But you eat it anyway. You’ve come this far, and you’ll be all right afterwards. So why not stuff yourself?