The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012)

If there’s a way to perfectly translate the feel of a cheap, trashy novel sold in a drugstore with the cover torn off into a film, Lee Daniels has found it. The bright colors and lighting, the jagged yet stylish editing, the period music, it all gives this the feel of a low budget B-movie from the 70s, while more importantly evoking a sense of (lurid) place to glorious excess. When sweat pours off of John Cusack by the bucketful as he bends his wife over a washing machine and fucks her, we feel it. When Zac Efron awakens one morning and comments that he stinks, after his jellyfish-stung face was pissed on by Nicole Kidman, we smell it. When Cusack’s backwoods uncle and possible alibi nonchalantly guts an alligator while being interviewed, entrails splashing onto the ground, we taste it. By watching this movie, you are transported to this shitty Florida town circa 1969, and you will want to take a shower.

And by the way, this wonderfully revolting barrage on the senses happens to have some great characters with great motivations as tangible as the humidity, sweat, piss, blood, cum, and swampwater that the camera delivers to you. Or, at least when it comes to the main character. Zac Efron’s Jack, the champion swimmer-turned-college kickout tagging along with his newspaper reporter older brother to investigate a possibly innocent man on death row, is a desperately unfulfilled loner, who needs to latch onto anyone or anything, as long as it gives him a sense of purpose or at the very least engages his senses for a minute or two. That he falls head over heels for Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte, the pen pal-turned-betrothed of the man on death row, is therefore unsurprising. She happens to be beautiful, she happens to be flirtatious, she happens to be there. Nevermind, to him at least, that her outward personality and mannerisms are, to put it nicely, pretty much in line with someone who would fall for and marry a crude, cruel prisoner based solely on words on a paper. Jack’s reasons for falling for such an ostensible loser, other than out of sheer loneliness or boredom, remain vague, and that’s just fine; it’s all about subjectively experiencing that longing from his point of view, rather than objectively deducing the reasons for it. This is where those audacious song choices and jump cuts and shots and poses that make even the most vile aspects of this time and place attractive and appealing (quite a feat) make their mark. That this hyper-subjective music and editing and slow-motion and what-not are used in a striking fantasy sequence as Jack imagines Charlotte exiting her apartment in a wedding dress, and then too in the periphery of the decidedly non-fantastical image of Jack getting pissed on by his foul-mouthed love at the beach, this style seems to both accentuate Jack’s inner world of romantic, whimsical machismo, and ironically comment on his grimy real life. Reality and fantasy seem to be blurring, namely Jack’s imagination-enhanced muse vs. the white trash she actually presents herself to be.

Really, the only other character with any kind of depth is Macy Gray’s Anita, the housekeeper for Jack’s family. Not only is she literally the narrator, but we arguably see the story through her eyes even moreso than through the supposed protagonist Jack’s. Just as was the plight of anyone daring to have black skin in those days, Anita is invisible to her employers on a good day, or downright belittled on all the other days. All the while, the ever-present look of disdain on her face and her snarky commentary tells us that she’s just simply watching, and judging, the players in this unseemly morality play that’s unfolding around her. We may be able to see the world as Jack sees it, but make no mistake, Anita is the audience’s stand-in. It makes sense, then, that the relationship between the two of them is the most warm and human in the story, one that’s lovingly contentious and ultimately of mutual respect in a world where respect towards oneself and others is as foreign a concept as taking a shower. I just wish everyone else was, if not a pure stereotype used to fuel the setting, then just glossed over, namely Jack’s brother Ward. Ward’s motivations for finding the truth about the prisoner Hillary Van Wetter, and in fact anything about him really, remain vague until late in the story, which is a shame as Matthew McConaughey plays him as an outwardly confident and affable investigator who clearly has searing inner turmoil and pain bubbling within, but to have that turmoil explained away in one shocking encounter in a hotel room was a letdown. True, it’s wise to maintain Jack’s point of view, thereby making Ward something of an enigma, but, eh, I dunno, more could’ve been done with him, because instead of any kind of insight into Ward, we get an overabundance of commentary on racial issues in 1960s Florida, namely when it comes to Anita and to David Oyelowo’s Yardley, Ward’s black, British colleague also investigating Hillary’s incarceration. Many dirty looks and cruel comments by the white man a la “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” later, and the point becomes old, fast, in a story and setting that’s otherwise too thrillingly trashy for such messages to be so outwardly espoused (although one late reveal about Yardley’s true nature, further driving home the racist society angle, is very funny and unexpected…). Much of the storytelling around this is sloppy, sometimes for good, sometimes, most prominently in this particular regard, for bad. John Cusack’s Hillary is just as underdeveloped and caricatured, but at least with him it’s wholly appropriate. From the start, Hillary is little more than a hard-breathing, sweaty, violent, cruel monster, truly an ogre keeping the princess locked away in the tower, or in this case the musty swamp, without a shred of humanity or characterization. He is, then, the utter personification of the sights, sounds, and attitudes of this over-the-top story and setting: every fear and insecurity brought on by this place that Jack must overcome is embodied by this man, in a terrifying finale that feels like so much more than rescuing the damsel in distress. In the end, “The Paperboy”‘s lessons are as messy as its narrative: not so good a thing for the latter, utterly vital for the former.

1 comment so far

  1. Piracetam on

    While that trailer indicates that this film could make for one twisted Southern tale of love and violence, it fails to highlight the most important scene that will probably make you want to get your cinema ticket faster than you can say “This ain’t High School Musical no more!”. You see there is a scene in the film where Efron’s character gets stung by a jellyfish, and if you ask most people what to do in a case like that, they”ll probably say that you need to pee on it (despite the fact that that’s not completely true, but we’ll save that lesson for another day). And that’s exactly what Nicole Kidman’s character did. For real.

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