When ‘The Paperboy’ showed at Cannes last year there was a lot of hoopla about how bad it was. I mean, it was trashed for being trashy and basically considered one of the worst films in recent memory. A lot of hype was brought to the table before it showed (Lee Daniels followup to his Oscar vehicle ‘Precious’) and even afterward (Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron) and basically what was considered total trash became one of those movies that everyone HAD TO SEE, even though they were pretty much guaranteed that they would hate it.
I didn’t hate this.
I want to start by saying that this movie is really very bad. Nothing about it works separately and yet together it all works in this ‘so bad I can’t help but be entertained by it’ kind of way. The accent work is awful (Efron can’t hold an accent and McConaughey doesn’t even try), the basic storyline is a confused mess (I’ve never seen a film that tried so hard to shove so much into one narrative) and the direction is a shoddy mess. Still, I can’t say that I hated this because despite the fact that it shouldn’t work, it kind of does.
The basic plot follows a young paperboy named Jack living in Florida during the 60’s. His brother Ward is a journalist for a newspaper trying to dig up evidence to prove the innocence of a man named Hillary Van Wetter, who is on death row for killing a sheriff. While in prison, Hillary started writing back and forth with Charlotte Bless, a simple minded southern tramp who has a thing for criminals. She’s convinced he’s innocent (for strange reasons) and she tries to help Ward prove that. In the meantime, young Jack is falling in love with Charlotte. She represents everything he’s lost over the years and in her he finds some sort of solace.
‘The Paperboy’ becomes messy because it can never establish a clear focal point. At the core of the film is supposedly this murder case, and yet there really seems to be no interest in it at all. It becomes background fodder for the love triangle forming between Hillary, Charlotte and Jack and yet, even at that Hillary becomes this side point with no real depth and so it becomes the Jack and Charlotte show. Still, there is no real character development between them and their relationship seems like a gimmick more than anything else; simply a springboard for bizarre behavior and scenes of awkwardly stylized thoughts. Then you have Ward and his partner Yardley and the underdeveloped semblance of the Jensen parents (father and step mother) and their housekeeper Anita, who appears to have a real impact on Jack and yet feels like more of a symbol than an actual character. Yardley is treated like a villain and never really given depth and Ward’s decline is supposed to have some significance and yet it is entirely wrapped up in the murder case, which by about thirty minutes in we’ve already forgotten all about. With all the themes here none of them come to completion and so it is basically about a lot of things and nothing all at the same time.
Lee Daniels once again proves to be the worst thing about his films (he misdirected ‘Precious’ and really was in no way shape or form the reason for its success).
The acting here is spotty. Matthew McConaughey plays himself once again and John Cusack really needs a shower. I used to think he was a good actor, but he tries WAY TOO HARD here. Zac Efron does nothing of merit outside of botch an accent. Kidman, Gray and Oyelowo are best in show for varying reasons (and none is without detractors either). Oyelowo has a very underdeveloped character and yet he tries to insert a backstory and manages to do that to a certain degree. Gray is the heart of the story (she narrates) and she does keep it together for the most part. She doesn’t really have a character and yet she manages to be a life-force, so for that she should be singled out. Kidman got the bulk of the attention (good and bad) for her fearless portrayal of a woman gone crazy. Her sexualized meeting with Hillary was ridiculous and incredible at the same time. She is polarizing because so much of what she does is SO EXTREME and yet in the context of this crazy film it almost works SO WELL.
At the end of the day, this film is really, truly bad. It is bad because Lee Daniels has no idea how to tell a story. He has so many ideas and ‘cool tricks’ that he thinks he’s saying more than he is or showing us more than he is and yet at the end of the day his films say so much less than they should because he lacks focus and his ‘style’ sacrifices ‘substance’ and winds up creating an empty feeling in the pit of his films. Still, the gritty 80’s style porno screen shots make this interesting and the wildly uneven trashiness make ‘The Paperboy’ nothing less than entertaining.