Paperboy, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/04/12 22:29:40
Back in 2009, people were practically falling over themselves in an effort to praise the film "Precious" and its director, Lee Daniels, for bringing such a powerful, harrowing and moving drama about overcoming incredible adversity to the screen. I hasten to add--and a quick review of my original review will back me up in this regard--that I was not one of those people. In fact, I thought that "Precious" was a turgid and overwrought melodrama that went so ridiculously far beyond the pale in its efforts to shock and move viewers that it often felt like an early John Waters film, sans the panache, dignity and keen filmmaking skill. Now Daniels has returned with his long-awaited follow-up, "The Paperboy," and I would like to announce that the line for people ready to inform me that I was right starts on the left. This is an exceptionally terrible film that can never decide whether it is a genuine example of a lurid Southern gothic melodrama or a outrageous spoof of such things and instead tries and fails to do both. It is the kind of movie where you will spend the entire time rubbing your eyes--half in incredulity at the on-screen lunacy and half in a desperate attempt to stay awake.Outside of a framing device of indeterminate time or point, "The Paperboy" is set in the humid backwater of Lately, Florida in 1969 and begins with the return of prodigal son Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughey), now a big-shot reporter for a Miami newspaper pursuing the story of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a swamp thug on Death Row for murdering a corrupt local sheriff. Spurred on by the efforts of Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a local woman who began a correspondence with Van Wetter and is now convinced enough of his innocence to become his fiancee, Ward is back, along with his slightly mysterious black British associate Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate whether Hillary got a fair trial. To schlep them around town, Ward enlists the services of younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), a one-time champion swimmer who was drummed out of college for being a troublemaker and who now divides his time between flirting with family maid Anita (Macy Gray) and posing in ways that seem designed to make him look the spitting image of Troy Donahue from back in the day when he was Hollywood's hunk du jour. Perhaps inevitably, Jack falls in love with Charlotte from the instant that he first sees her and that is only the tip of an iceberg consisting of murder, lust, infidelity, homosexuality, racism, and alligator disembowelments.
As someone who has a certain affinity for unrepentant trash, provided that it is dished out with the right amount of flair and energy, I have to admit that this collection of ingredients could have been transformed into a cheerfully lurid cinematic stew. On the other hand, being based on a novel by the great Pete Dexter (who co-wrote the screenplay with Daniels), they could have been made into a powerful drama in the vein of Dexter's brilliant "Paris Trout." Somewhere along the way, however, "The Paperboy" went terribly and bizarrely wrong to such an extent that I can honestly say that I have no idea of what Daniels' intentions towards the material could have possibly been and I also have the sneaky suspicion that Daniels has no idea of what they could have been either. Stripped of all its weirdo excesses--don't worry, we will get to them in a second--the basic narrative is as confusing of a mess as I can recall seeing in recent memory. The story appears to have been hacked to pieces in the editing--even the basic mystery of whether Hillary committed his initial crime or not is essentially left dangling in the wind--and haphazardly stitched together via a narration that is far too self-conscious for its own good and told through the eyes of the one character who wasn't even around for the key moments in the story. Various plot developments are introduced with great fanfare and then abandoned so quickly that I found myself wonder why they were even included in the first place. By the end, there are so many plot threads dangling in the wind that the only way that the film can think of to wrap everything up in a deeply untidy bow is to have one of the characters go on a kill spree more appropriate for a "Friday the 13th" knockoff instead of a theoretically serious-minded drama.
As bad as "The Paperboy" is when taken seriously, it is even worse when looked at as some kind of hallucinatory weirdness. At least once every reel, Daniels throws in a scene that seems to designed solely to shock viewers in the cheapest manner possible--Hillary and Charlotte's first jailhouse encounter literally climaxes with their simultaneous orgasms despite a distance of at least ten feet between them, Jack dropping the n-word for no particular reason, Ward being inexplicably discovered in an especially compromising position and, in the moment that will live on in the annals of film history long after the rest of it has faded from memory, Charlotte and Jack go for a swim date that is interrupted when he is stung by a jellyfish and she urinates on him in order to stop the swelling. I don't necessarily object to any of these developments in theory but if they are to work as anything other than cheap and obvious shock moments, they have to be handled with a certain care so that they mean something. By agreeing to perform scenes that most of their peers would head for the hills, the actors that Daniels has recruited--he presumably had his choice of people wanting to work with him in the wake of the success of "Precious"--show themselves willing to take chances and run the risk of looking foolish and it is unfortunate that Daniels has let them down by given them material not worthy of their efforts. I have no doubt that these embarrassing moments will eventually show up on YouTube and be laughed at by countless viewers but the sad fact that those scenes will probably have as much dramatic import as individual moments meant to be laughed at than as pieces of a story trying and failing to pull together into a coherent whole.Playing like the end result of the shotgun marriage of Otto Preminger's immortal civil rights saga "Hurry Sundown" and the Dakota-Fanning-rape epic "Hound Dog," "The Paperboy" is an ungodly mess that fails as drama, as camp and as cautionary example. This is a film that goes so far off the rails that it might have been fascinating if it were not executed in such a dreadful and dreadfully dull manner. (Forget the John Waters comparisons that I made in regards to precious--this film find Daniels heading into Coleman Francis territory.) There are some people, no doubt, who will attempt to defend this film as being some kind of sly self-satire in the manner of the later films of Russ Meyer. These people would be wrong because whatever flaws Meyer might have possessed as a filmmaker, he certainly would have brought the kind of flair and no-holds-barred attitude that a film of this type sorely needs and which Daniels sorely lacks. The best thing that I can think of to say about "The Paperboy" is that it has a good and talented cast and while none of them are served particularly well here (Cusack is especially awful and Kidman seems to have wandered in from another movie entirely and looks as though she is itching to return to it), they will all no doubt recover from this particular experience and move on to greener pastures. Whether the same can be said for whatever audience this film manages scrounge up (probably consisting of people who will eventually time things so that they enter the theater at precisely the moment that Kidman and Efron hit the beach) remains to be seen.
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