Part murder mystery, part interracial melodrama, part siblings bonding tale, part coming of age, and mostly a star vehicle for Zac Efron in white underwear, Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” is a vastly disappointing follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Precious.”
In fact, “Paperboy” is exactly the opposite kind of film from “Precious,” which was tightly focused, dramatically compelling, emotionally upsetting, and above all, extremely well acted, especially by Mo’Nique, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
In contrast, “The Paperboy” is loose, rambling, lacking dramatic focus, not even well acted, and technically inept, showing major deficiencies of Lee Daniels as a craftsman.
At its current, shapeless form, the movie seems unfinished, sort of work-in-progress. There were rumors that director Daniels was under tremendous pressure to finish his picture in time for world premiere at the Cannes Film Fest, which two years ago had shown “Precious” in its secondary series, Un Certain Regard.
Now, Daniels, like other directors who began their careers in Cannes in other series, has been elevated to the Main Competition, which might have damaging effects on the film and on his fledgling career, as critical response to “The Paperboy” would be mixed to negative.
Let me start with the casting. John Cusack is cast against type as white trash, a brutal man who might have been wrongly accused of murdering a seedy sheriff. Nicole Kidman is miscast as an aging sexpot, a vulgar floozy in blond wig, fake eyelashes, and trashy mouth to match. McConaughey, having appeared in countless narcissistic roles that display his gorgeous body, has been deglamorized as the older, seemingly more mature brother of Zac Efron, who arguably is the only cast member credibly cast.
The original cast, as Daniles dislcosed in the press conference, was composed of Tobey Maguire (in Efron’s role), Sofia Vergara (in Kidman’s), and Bradley Cooper (in McConnaughey), all (especially Vergara, more suitable to the roles as conceived and written.
The beginning of the film is particularly weak, hampered as it is by an interview with the family’s maid, Anita (Macy Gray), who recalls the steamy events of the 1960s, in and outside the Jansens clan.
Moreover, throughout the narrative, the little dramatic flow that prevails is interrupted by Anita’s voice-over narration, which not so much comments on the action as providing necessary links among the overly fractured episodic yarn.
In the summer of 1969, the Miami Times journalist Ward Jansen (McConaughey) returns to rural Florida to investigate and write an article about Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack), who’s in prison, charged with the killing of a bigot sheriff, though he may be innocent. Ward’s much younger, immature brother, Jack (Efron), follows him—at first, reluctantly—as his driver. The two are joined by Ward’s black colleague, Yardley (David Oyelowo), a cynical, arrogant reporter, with an interesting past (and chip on his shoulder).
Ward and Yardley rely too much on Charlotte Bless (Kidman), Hillary’s low-class, disreputable mistress, who wants her man back and is determined to prove his innocence. Needless to say, the perpetually horny, still virginal Jack falls hard for Charlotte, sizing her up and down with hungry eyes, as she walks around in her tacky pants and deep-cleavage blouses (often yellow and orange). For her part, Charlotte teases the youngster with her foul lingo and detailed descriptions of sexual habits and encounters (“I will not blow you,” she says at one point, and we know that it’s only a matter of time before she does).
As noted, it was baffling to observe that Efron is half naked in half of his scenes, usually in underwear, or sporting a bathing suit while swimming under water, with the camera lovingly caressing him, often in slow motion. (Swimming and especially water are used both literally and figuratively in this humid, sweaty (and sticky, in more senses than on) tale set in Florida’s dangerous swamps.
Watching the movie, you can’t help but think of numerous (better films) that “The Paperboy” references directly, or alludes to indirectly, features than were set in the same era—the momentous mid-late1960s in terms of the Civil Rights Movement, in the same region, and dealing with similar issues.
End result is a lurid, overheated, borderline risible melodrama, which can never find its narrative center, jumping around from one underdeveloped subplot to another, and from one underwritten part to the next—all in 104 minutes.
A mishmash of a feature, “The Paperboy” feels like a patchwork comprised of parallel strands, perhaps a result of the fact that the scenario was co-written by helmer Daniels and Pete Dexter, based on Dexter’s richly detailed, largely engrossing, well received 1995 novel. Or may be it’s a function of the fact that no less than 14 individuals (including Daniels) are credited as producers, executive producers, co-producers, and co-executive producers.
On the one hand, the movie is not serious or deep enough to be taken seriously as an essay on racial prejudice and/or journalistic ethos (or lack of). On the other, “The Paperboy” is not juicy enough to quality as a guilty pleasure, even if there are moments that point to the direction of pulpy (and sleazy) potboiler, suggested by the profane dialogue, the sex scenes, Cusack autoeroticism to complete ejaculation in prison, Kidman urinating on Efron (as a cure…), multiple nasty murders (including a graphic throat-slitting).
Ward Jansen – Matthew McConaughey
Jack Jansen – Zac Efron
Yardley Acheman – David Oyelowo
Anita Chester – Macy Gray
Hillary Van Wetter – John Cusack
Charlotte Bless – Nicole Kidman
Millennium Films release presented with Metropolitan Filmexport of a Nu Image and Lee Daniels Entertainment production.
Produced by Hilary Shor, Daniels, Avi Lerner, Ed Cathell III, Cassian Elwes.
Executive producers, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, John Thompson, Boaz Davidson, Mark Gill, Jan De Bont.
Co-producers, Asger Hussain, Simone Sheffield.
Co-executive producer, Lonnie Ramati.
Directed by Lee Daniels.
Screenplay: Pete Dexter, Daniels, based on Dexter’s novel.