Lee Daniels has made something far afield from his 2009 sophomore effort, Precious, with The Paperboy, a somewhat campy, exploitative, ’70s style feature with thematic hints of A Time to Kill and To Kill a Mockingbird and a second half vibe that reminded me of Cape Fear. That narrative, however, can’t support the weird mix of serious drama and over the top craziness that come together to create a story that never finds its footing.
Daniels’ script, which he co-wrote with Peter Dexter based on Dexter’s novel, tends to be throwing scenes at the wall just to see what will stick and while it’s largely a messy production, the totally unexpected final act shows promise for how great this might have been with a little more focus.
Set in 1969, The Paperboy takes place in the small town of Lately, Florida where Ward James (Matthew McConaughey), a reporter for the “Miami Times”, has come home to write a story on Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a man convicted of killing a crooked town sheriff. Knowing the town the way he does, Ward believes Hillary was wrongly convicted of the crime based on insubstantial evidence and a judge just looking for someone to blame.
Ward’s father (Scott Glenn) runs the local newspaper and his baby brother Jack (Zac Efron) has found himself going nowhere fast, losing his swimming scholarship at the University of Florida after draining the school’s pool and is now sitting home. With nothing else to do, Jack plays chauffeur for his brother while he’s in town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo), a man whose skin color adds to the on-and-off racial vibe the film is carrying.
Initially just excited to be around his brother, Jack’s interest in Hillary’s case takes a turn once he meets Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a white trash woman who finds a particular interest in writing inmates and falling in love with them. Hillary is her current obsession, so much so she has already determined she’s going to marry him. Jack, being a lovestruck young man without much world experience, falls at her feet as the film establishes its myriad of themes from Jack’s odd sexual attraction to Charlotte, the race relations in Lately, why exactly Ward is working so closely with Yardley and a variety of other bits and bobs that surface throughout. Thing is, none of them really fit together into a cohesive narrative as much as they play like a collection of ideas.
Daniels, cinematographer Roberto Schaefer (Quantum of Solace) and editor Joe Klotz (Precious) take the ’70s vibe and run with it, though that’s all they seem to be doing, attempting to create a vibe. It’s almost like you can see them trying too hard as one scene dissolves into the other and plays over another in a delirious cacophony of multiple exposure that ends up saying very little.
For the most part the film is shown from Jack’s perspective, him being the titular and metaphorical “paperboy”, and the presentation I’m describing here is largely used while he longingly stares at Charlotte, her words and face creating a blurred vision of his object of desire as she tramps around in her short skirt, bountiful eyeliner and bleach blonde wig. Kidman is certainly a sight, but not one to fawn over, and if her character’s stupidity doesn’t cause for disgust, the moment we watch her pee on Jack’s face after he’s stung by a jellyfish most likely will, though Kidman’s line delivery is quite funny.
The problem here isn’t the fact it’s gross to watch a stream of urine land on Efron’s face, but the fact we don’t care about him, her, Ward or anyone in the film. Strangely, the closest we get to any character is the James family maid Anita (Macy Gray) who also, for whatever reason, narrates the film. The film isn’t enough of a comment on anything to give Anita the narrative reigns as much as it feels like a crutch. Often enough she’s just describing what’s on the screen or giving information that could be taken care of in a brief expository shot. The characters are all kept at arm’s length so when something good or bad happens we don’t have much reason to care and it takes away a lot from the film, a film that grows increasingly exploitative and is always better when the story is seen rather than told.
Unfortunately, a lot is wasted as a result of the film’s problems. The performances are actually quite good, some cringe-worthy such as Cusack as the jailed Van Wetter, a man I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with. Kidman is highly entertaining as the inmate-loving, white trash sex kitten, willing to rip the crotch out of her stockings and simulate sex from a distance upon first meeting Van Wetter. Ugh, just the name Van Wetter gives me the willies and he never lets up.
Efron is solid, though nothing to write home about — no harm, no foul — and McConaughey is pretty much kept on a tight leash, not able to go explore his frequently charismatic self even though you can see him trying, which does hurt the performance a bit.
One character that is interesting and may have been a better focus of attention is David Oyelowo’s Yardley. Considering the racial tension throughout much of the film, the curious relationship between Yardley and Ward and the circumstances that follow could have been something here. With where Yardley ends up and the story concludes, you could have had a down dirty in the swamp variation of The Godfather final montage that would have been one hell of a sight.
Overall it seems like a missed opportunity. Though I’ve never read the book, it almost seems as if they took too literal an approach to the material instead of getting creative in adapting it for the screen. Attempts at creativity seemed to largely focus on messing with the visual presentation where the gritty, old school photography was more than enough. While I did enjoy the film’s ending, the journey there was a miss, but not one I’m entirely sorry I got to see.