The buzz around The Paperboy has been palpable: booed and derided at Cannes, feted by critics like Peter Bradshaw and Roger Ebert, an all-star cast, sex, violence and jellyfish. It’s exactly the kind of divisive film likely to be labelled a cult classic. But cults rarely arise overnight, and in this case it’ll take quite some time before The Paperboy can be judged anything other than a qualified success.
Set in America’s Deep South, the plot (such as it exists) concerns a murdered sheriff and the Death Row inmate sentenced to the chair for his slaughter. He’s the sadistically perverted Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack playing firmly against type), a man for whom Nicole Kidman’s slutty Charlotte Bless has fallen head over heels– despite never having met him. When journalist Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) arrive in town to investigate a possible miscarriage of justice, they enlist Charlotte’s help to get close to van Wetter, bringing along Ward’s sexually repressed little brother (Zac Efron) along for the ride.
It’s the kind of story which has been filmed a million times before – and director Lee Daniels seems to know this. Aware of the potential clichés, he practically abandons all sense of story early on, instead choosing to use the underlying mystery merely as a frame on which to hang his colourful characters and any number of underdeveloped and unexplored themes and issues: father/son relationships, racism, homosexuality, sado-masochism, repressed sexuality and public masturbation.
It’s a total mess, saved only by Macy Gray’s Anita – the Jansen family’s live-in maid and the film’s narrator. Her performance is suffused with a subtle warmth and strength which is the most believable aspect of the whole movie. Her sisterly relationship with Efron’s Jack is compelling and convincing, although sadly given too little screen-time. Instead, Daniels ladles on layer after layer of steamy, sweaty sexuality: constant shots of Efron in his pants, Kidman’s behind, mentions of masturbation and an undercurrent of latent homosexuality which erupts in ridiculously ostentatious fashion.
Understandably, the scenes which have attracted most attention are those featuring the kind of sexually charged Nicole Kidman not seen since Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. She really lets go here, wiggling around the screen in the skimpiest of outfits, her surgically enhanced features lending a convincing plasticity to her character. Her bravery in taking the role is commendable: Charlotte Bless is a deeply unattractive woman in her middle years whose former glories belong firmly in the past. Sadly, Kidman’s bravery is misplaced.
Entering prison to meet van Wetter for the first time, Charlotte is flanked by Jack, Ward and Yardley, yet within seconds is participating in spread-legged, crotch straining mutual masturbation with her ‘lover’. It’s no holds barred stuff, and the performances are completely believable – but it feels deeply uncomfortable in much the same way as the much-parodied aquatic sex scene in Showgirls.
The scene in which Charlotte urinates on a jellyfish-stung Jack feels utterly incongruous – it’s absurd and hilarious, but was it meant to be? There are obvious laughs to be had in The Paperboy but it’s unclear as to whether it was ever meant to be funny or not. Most of the laughs are to be had at the film’s expense rather than its comedic intentions.
And herein lies the problem: this film has no idea what it wants to be. Is it film-noir? Black comedy? A murder mystery? It seems nobody really knows – and every time it seems have decided which direction it’s travelling, an absurd new element is thrown into the mix, explored in the most desultory manner and dispensed with. The issue of where Ward’s facial scars come from is the film’s most preposterous element: a plot twist which appears from nowhere and adds absolutely nothing but another layer of sordid filth.
Stylistically, the film has some nice flourishes: a Tarantinoesque soundtrack, excellent make-up and costume, and a grimily sweaty aesthetic. But there are also some hugely clumsy metaphors (the killer is like an alligator, eh? How did you come up with that?) and there are some shockingly bad edits which serve only to confuse the audience. It’s certainly not the cast who let this film down, but Lee Daniels, who seems to subscribe to the theory that if you throw enough shit, some of it sticks. Here, it simply slides limply down the wall, leaving a steaming pile of excrement all over the floor.