Filmmaker Lee Daniels follows his Oscar-winning drama Precious with The Paperboy, an equally uncompromising film that builds a steamy stinking world of Southern-fried atmosphere where sex, race, and deception hang as thick as the Spanish Moss in this south Florida-set tale of family dysfunction.
From the film’s opening minutes, we realize that Daniels’ take on the Pete Dexter hard-boiled crime thriller of the same name will be nothing about restraint or self-control. Understanding that the story’s characters survive on the fringes of society and will never become major players in the center of the arena, he reciprocates by giving the film a grubby, grungy look and feel, like a genuine ‘70s exploitation film where everything – and everyone - feels natural in the grainy, hand-held, 16mm world with subdued colors, garish lighting, and raspy audio. Stylistically, The Paperboy would feel right at home on a Crown International triple bill sandwiched between Soul Vengeance and The Pom Pom Girls.
The Paperboy’s visual style will certainly be a polarizing obstacle to a certain chunk of the mainstream movie-going audience, especially since the studio appears to be marketing the film as a straight-up mystery/thriller that might be churned out by the highly proliferative Grisham mill. And with big name stars like Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, and John Cusack, many greenhorn mainstream celebrity chasers will be caught off guard, and frankly shocked, by the in-your-face stylings of Daniels’ film. After all, not many are equipped with a natural defense to watching a scene where Kidman's character hikes down and pees an impressive stream across the face and chest of Efron's to save his life. And yes, it’s seen, not intimated. While watching The Paperboy, the axiom “one man’s trash is another’s treasure” comes to mind. And while it’s certainly not unfair to call The Paperboy trash, count this author among those who value the discards of the mainstream.
Peeling back the many seamy layers of its subsurface reveals a sensitive coming-of-age portrait of a young boy named Jack Jansen (Efron) who falls in love with an older, and much more “experienced” woman named Charlotte (Kidman). Jack’s older brother Ward jansen(McConaughey) is a reporter for the Miami Times who has returned to his sleepy hometown of Lately, Florida to write a story on the possible miscarriage of justice against Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack), the violent Florida swamp rat who claims to have been framed for the murder of a corrupt local sheriff. Accompanied by his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), Ward hopes to get to the bottom of the botched investigation.
But the main plot is swirling with numerous sub-plots, secondary strands, and thematic threads that Daniels sometimes has a tough time keeping a handle on. An awkward voice-over narration by the Jansen family housemaid (Macy Gray) often feels a bit too much like an added on afterthought rather than a smoothly integrated narration device. And sometimes a bit too much attention is paid to a series of confusing misjudgments from some of the characters that gets things off track.
But Daniels’ film sings in full-throated tenor when Nicole Kidman is on the screen in character as Charlotte Bless, a slutty, death-row groupie who has been keeping a pen pal relationship with Van Wetter and aids in the investigation to get his conviction overturned. We’ve never seen Kidman in a role quite like this and just as Mo’Nique bit into her unforgettable role in Precious, Kidman sinks her teeth into Charlotte and holds on with pit bull tenacity. Her look is 100% 1969 with Mod Squad flowered mini-skirts and inch-long false eyelashes. She’s pure trash and ultra-leggy sex-pot who can never seem to make the right decisions, but we can’t help falling in love with her despite the over-the-top – and often offensive - shock value.
One look at Cusack’s demented Van Wetter screams “stay away,” so we’re actually not too surprised by Charlotte’s shallow attraction to the loathsome gator hunter who may or may not be innocent of his crimes, but is unquestionably guilty of even darker transgressions. McConaughey stays on his hot streak, Efron displays no trouble keeping up with the veteran cast, and New Orleans stands in nicely as the sweaty, swampy southern Florida atmosphere that seems to bake the proceedings in its steamy broth.
Not everyone will be able to make it through this pungent swamp thriller that reeks of death, body odor, and blatant offensiveness, but keeping in mind that a clean shower and fresh white linens await might help.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, violence and language.
Runtime: 107 mins.
Director: Lee Daniels
Writer: Lee Daniels
Cast: Nicole Kidman; Zac Efron; Matthew McConaughey; John Cusack: Macy Gray; David Oyelowo
Tagline: The Paperboy
Memorable Movie Quote: "Hillary ain't so bad. I ain't so good, I've got another side."
Distributor: Millennium Entertainment
Official Site: thepaperboy-movie.com/
Release Date: October 5, 2012
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available.
Synopsis: From Oscar® nominated director Lee Daniels comes a provocative, sexually-charged tale of desire, ambition, prejudice and crime set in the 1960s swamplands of South Florida. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray, John Cusack and Academy Award® winner Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy dips into the gritty human underside of a murder investigation, as a compelling cast of characters confront obsession, deception and their own dark, dark demons on the muddy road towards retribution.
It all begins in the steamy rural backwater of Moat County, Florida, where things have been done the same way for decades, yet change is bubbling beneath the surface. Boyish Jack Jansen (Efron), son of the local newspaper publisher, has just returned home after being kicked out of college, only to take the lowly job of paperboy. But that too changes when his idolized journalist brother Ward (McConaughey) comes to town from Miami on the trail of a story that could make his career.
Bringing in tow his hotshot writing partner Yardley (Oyelowo) and the alluring death-row groupie Charlotte Bless (Kidman), Ward plans to prove that an innocent man has been railroaded on his way to the electric chair. With Jack as their driver, the quartet arranges to meet Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack), the seedy alligator hunter hastily convicted of killing the local sheriff, at the prison. But what erupts between them all is a tangled web of sexual tension, mixed motives and shadowy facts that will set off not only a search for the truth but a chain reaction of passion and violence. Observing it all is Jack’s only real confidante — the disregarded family maid Anita (Gray) – who watches in dismay as his innocence is turned inside out.