Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Lee Daniels & Peter Dexter (screenplay), Peter Dexter (novel)
Starring: Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman and John Cusack
The morning screening of Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy was greeted with loud boos as well as sincere applause at Cannes, embracing the inevitable debate that will likely follow it when it washes up in the U.S. It is a highly stylized look at 1960s Florida that transports the fashion and the social constraints without laying it on too thick.
Daniels’ directs the hell out of the movie, deconstructing the typical murder thriller plot into something that deliberately denies the audience a satisfactory conclusion. There are scenes that wildly break the tone and stick out like a sore thumb, like a decidedly awkward, sort-of sexual early encounter between Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte and her imprisoned flame Hillary (John Cusack) during their visitation in front of his lawyers.
Early on in the movie we’re taken on sort of a court procedural as big city attorney Ward James (Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) try to prove Hillary’s innocence. Though that is meant to be front-and-center at first, the entire movie takes place from the perspective of Ward’s brother Jack (Zac Efron), which becomes clearer as the story takes its decidedly bizarre and very welcome shifts.
The best thing that can be said about The Paperboy is that it does not make that all-too-common mistake of distancing itself from the era and whitewashing its problems (i.e. The Help). It is not a social issue drama; instead, the social issues act as obstructions for the characters. The James’ black maid (Macy Gray) is rambunctious, sexual woman instead of the asexual stereotype; the macho role model character ends up being gay.
Other than those refreshingly new and campily named characters, The Paperboy has fairly uneven success as a story. The imagery is beautifully rendered and tied together, with faded super-impositions and quick cuts set to a terrific soundtrack. That being said, the story is quite a mess, intentional or not. The ending is much too rushed and quickly tied together and there are a few scenes (one involving piss and jellyfish) that try to be taken seriously within the story but end up failing miserably.
Paperboy’s story may be out of control, but it seems as if Daniels knew this and instead focused on atmosphere and character. Some of the performances, especially those of Kidman, Gray and McConaughey, are terrific. Efron breaks out of the High School Musical mold with a complicated role that he sort of pulls off. You’ll take him as seriously as you can when he’s wearing nothing but underwear for large chunks at a time.
Part of the fun of this movie is how reckless it is. It is a huge departure from Daniels’ Precious, which would’ve been horrendous had it not been so delicate and uncompromising. Paperboy is certainly the latter, though delicacy is nowhere to be found. It is a blunt, beautifully shot mess that (kind of) works when John Cusack isn’t on screen.