Starring: Mathew McConaughey, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman
You may like this if you like: Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011), Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012), A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
Hotshot Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen (McConaughey) returns to his Florida hometown to investigate the controversial conviction of Death Row inmate Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Ward lets college dropout brother Jack (Efron) help out as the driver to help him find some direction in his life, and the two estranged brothers get to know each other again. Aiding with the case is Ward’s British colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) and also Charlotte (Kidman) who through letters to each other is recently engaged to Van Wetter and her presence allows access to Van Wetter for Ward and Yardley to uncover the truth. As adolescent Jack gets to know Charlotte it opens up a whole new world of sexual desire as he develops an infatuation with her. As all involved investigate deeper into the case it opens up issues of racial prejudice and inequalities as well as dark secrets and revelations of themselves.
A film famously booed at Cannes, Lee Daniels follow up to the critically acclaimed Precious is a slight change in direction. It is intentionally trashy, grotty and sweaty with obviously intentional bad editing and jump cuts. It was a reception that I think in retrospect was a tad harsh. Maybe they were expecting more, but for me The Paperboy is a just about watchable, enjoyable enough film that is an extremely self aware piece of exploitation cinema.
The actual plot is not too important, more just a vehicle to depict a plethora of themes such as repressed sexuality, sexual desire, race inequality and of course murder. Though these themes are touched upon they are never dealt with particularly seriously or in any great detail, mainly being used as a tool to up the trash factor as high as possible. It is essentially at it’s (sort of) heart a coming-of-age tale with Zac Efron as its protagonist as he feels feelings of sexual desire, jealousy and infatuation for the first time.
Presented within the narrative are essentially almost a series of memorable scenes held together by a wafer thin plot. These scenes are at times uncomfortable and quite shocking in various ways, but yet still manage to be compelling. This is also at times quite a disconcerting experience, as at times I wanted to laugh, but wasn’t sure why or indeed if it was appropriate. It is apparent that this was Daniels’ intention as the film is pretty much a mess, but again that was probably intentional. Likewise, none of the characters are particularly easy to care about, or indeed like at times, but again that was probably intentional too. Despite all this The Paperboy has just about enough to keep it ticking over.
This is most definitely a film that provides a genuine and raw (sometimes too raw) feeling of time and place. You will almost feel sweaty and wanting a bath just watching it, trust me. The main thing that allows The Paperboy to work is its strong cast, making the hollow plot and trashy and then beyond trashy sweat and sexuality bearable and strangely compelling. They all give committed performances in roles that in some ways are against type. Zac Efron is frequently in his pants and is surprisingly good, perfectly suited to his role. McConaughey is once again a commanding screen presence in the same gear as Killer Joe and Mud put together, and he and Efron make a surprisingly effective double act. The main standout is Nicole Kidman; playing against type, she is pure trailer trash and giving off an undeniable level of highly charged sexuality and emotional instability. Whenever she is on screen she is undeniably watchable and the first scene she shares with John Cusack (also unhinged and very watchable) is very well acted, extremely uncomfortable and certainly unforgettable. Daniels has obviously given his cast free license to really go for it with their characters, and they are obviously enjoying themselves which for me this makes sure that The Paperboy just about works.
The Paperboy is an intentionally trashy, nasty and uncomfortable watch that for me just about works mainly down to the acting and Lee Daniels stoic self confidence. Worth a watch definitely, but only once as there is actually very little substance to go with all the grimy style, but at least you will know what to do if you get stung by a jelly fish!