REVIEW: Lee Daniels Delivers A Lurid, Jumbled Southern-Fried Sleaze Saga In 'The Paperboy'
The act of directing suggests, well, direction — that whether it comes together as planned or not, a filmmaker is pursuing a particular vision he or she wants to put on screen. But this is not the sense you get from The Paperboy, the new film from Precious' Lee Daniels, a feature that feels like it's been assembled scene by scene on whatever whims were guiding the director that day. No return to an opening framing sequence with narrator Macy Gray? Zac Efron's face superimposed over the bright Florida sky? The already infamous jellyfish-enabled watersports scene? Another in which Nicole Kidman and John Cusack have mind sex in a prison visiting room in front of an audience?
Check, check, check and check. The Paperboy is a nutty movie in terms of content, but it's also assembled in a demented fashion — there's a sense that literally anything could happen, and that its raunchy, heat-dazed story could wander down any path without regard to sense or an overall narrative. It resembles the relatively straightforward Precious far less than it does Daniels' wild-eyed directorial debut Shadowboxer, which offered up Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren as stepson and stepmother turned assassin lovers. Like that film, The Paperboy doesn't seem intended to be taken entirely seriously but also offers few signals as to how it then is meant to be taken — it's an exploitation pastiche that never seems to be actually referencing anything, a campfest that approaches its most over-the-top scenes with a deadly straightforwardness. For better or worse — mostly worse — Daniels has made one of the most unpredictable movies of the year.
Set in 1969, The Paperboy is narrated by Anita (Macy Gray), who works as a housekeeper for the Jansen family, owners of a local newspaper. Anita is being interviewed about a book about the events on screen that was written by Jack (Efron), the younger of the two Jansen sons, but that's an element that, like the mystery around which the story theoretically revolves, fades away in the face of more fleshly distractions. Jack is definitely one of those, a college drop-out delivering papers for his dad W.W. (Scott Glenn) and spending a lot of time in the pool or lounging around in his tighty-whities. Efron gets ogled by the camera even more than Nicole Kidman, who makes a big entrance in a little dress as Charlotte Bless, a woman with a taste for dangerous men who's fallen in love via letters with convict Hillary Van Wetter (a laudably greasy John Cusack).
Charlotte's convinced Hillary has been falsely imprisoned for the murder of the town's sheriff, and has lured Jack's brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a reporter working in Miami, back to town to investigate his story with his partner Yardley (David Oyelowo). But this is just a loose structure to allow Jack to spend time with his object of lust, Charlotte, who as Anita helpfully puts it in voiceover serves as "his mama, his high school sweetheart and an oversexed Barbie doll all in one." If Jack's love of Charlotte is pure pop psychology, so is Charlotte's affection for the beast-like Hillary, sex and death in one white trash package — in a scene that makes the beach urination sequence look tame, the pair bring each other to mutual orgasm without touching in their first in-person meeting at the prison while Jack, Ward and Yardley look on, bemused, horrified and aroused.
The Paperboy's approach to sexuality is bold, unabashed and discomforting. The movie has a stupefying physicality to it, particularly when it comes to bodily fluids — the gloss of sweat everyone wears, the semen dampening Hillary's pant leg, the piss Charlotte lets loose on Jack's body when he's stung by jellyfish, the blood that pools around a character's face onto the plastic tarp he's spread out to accommodate his particular desires. Everyone is shown to harbor dark animal impulses, and the movie coyly ducks away from its only affection-driven hookup, with Anita scolding in voiceover that we're seen enough — rich, given what does make it onto the screen. The Paperboy provides a lurid spectacle, but it's one that leaves you wanting to scrub yourself clean in the shower afterward.
While Efron plays a primarily decorative role, Kidman gives it her all as the sultry, crazy Charlotte. It's a certainly a brave and dedicated performance, if one that comes to no notable end other than to serve as a reminder that she capable of playing more than glacial or regal. It's Gray's grounded, rounded-out take on the mammy archetype who stands out as the only relatable, human character amidst all the outsized sleaze, a woman who's cared for the motherless Jack and has become a friend to him. Like so many of the other elements in the film, racial tensions are raised and then allowed to drift away, but the scenes between Efron and Gray are poignant and funny, and provide a slight counterbalance to all the grotesquery in this otherwise offputting jumble.