Film review: The Paperboy (15)

John Cusack as a jailbird and Matthew McConaughey as a reporter in The Paperboy
John Cusack as a jailbird and Matthew McConaughey as a reporter in The Paperboy
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THIS is a film made up of moments: some of them great, some of them terrible, none of them particularly coherent or meaningful, and almost all of them pulsating with some kind of lurid intent that builds towards nothing in particular.

The Paperboy (15)

Directed By: Lee Daniels

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew Mcconaughey, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray, John Cusack

***

Set in Florida in the late 1960s, The Paperboy appears to be a film about racial tensions, sexual peccadilloes and a murder for which a swamp-dwelling reprobate may or may not have been wrongly placed on Death Row.

Yet it follows, and loses interest in, so many narrative strands that much of this gets lost on screen. Indeed, even with an omnipresent voiceover narration frequently providing baby-brained psychological insights into the characters, the film seems wildly unfocused, a fact exacerbated by the opacity of this very framing device, which appears to involve – bear with me on this – one of the characters giving her version of the events unfolding on screen to an unseen journalist who seems to be writing a piece about a book that another of the main characters has written about the same story. Confused? You will be, not least because while it is entirely possible that the 
potential for multiple levels of unreliable narration here is part of a deliberate ploy to turn The Paperboy into some radical postmodern experiment in narrative filmmaking, it feels an awful lot more like a mess that director Lee Daniels has managed to partially salvage courtesy of some committed performances from his A-list cast.

Chief among these are Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron, both playing against type and both holding the screen in ways that create the illusion that Daniels (who made the acclaimed Precious a few years back) may actually know what he’s doing.

Kidman in particular carries the lion’s share of the film as Charlotte Bess, a sexed-up southern belle involved in an epistolary, but steamy and highly charged, relationship with the aforementioned Death Row convict, Hillary Van Wetter.

Hillary, played with sleazy conviction by John Cusack (an actor whose own couldn’t-give-a-crap career decline in recent years has been so extreme that this almost constitutes a comeback), is a despicable human being, a grotesque who, in the film’s most outlandish scene, is depicted in handcuffs ejaculating into his trousers while watching Charlotte mime oral sex from across an interrogation room.

Their bond is unfathomable, but Charlotte is so convinced of his innocence she’s enlisted the help of Miami-based reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his black English colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to return to Ward’s hometown to investigate the potentially botched investigation that put Hillary away. At which point any procedural interest in solving the crime takes a backseat to the simmering passions of its main players, particularly those of Ward’s younger brother, Jack (Efron), an aspiring cub reporter who falls hard for Charlotte.

Charlotte, in turn, encourages and exploits his devotion but also seeks to keep his urges at bay by humiliating and controlling him. When a jellyfish stings him on the beach one day, it is Charlotte who comes to his rescue by aggressively insisting on peeing on him, an already much-discussed scene, the infamy of which is hard to understand given a similar scenario was once the basis for a gag on Friends.

As a further bid for career credibility, though, the ex-High School Musical star acquits himself well enough throughout the film. Framed at various stages to look like a young Martin Sheen or James Dean, he’s good at playing the lost little boy to Kidman’s atavistic temptress; someone not yet fully cognisant of the true power he holds as a young guy looking the way he does. It’s just a shame the film doesn’t take this anywhere. Instead their relationship has to fight for attention with yet another story strand that brings to mind The Help, as the Jansen’s family maid Anita (Macy Gray) weaves in and out of the story, commenting on things she couldn’t possibly have seen (it’s Anita who provides the narration) while providing a core of decency in the face of so much Southern depravity. And then there’s Yardley, whose forceful presence in such casually racist environs adds extra unease as he competes with Jack for Charlotte’s attention. Familial tensions involving the Jansen brothers’ father (Scott Glenn) and his new fiancé also abound, apropos of nothing, as do further revelations that spin McConaughey’s character off in a much darker direction, one that seems to have little bearing on anything else, beyond suggesting that all families are largely dysfunctional and riven with secrets.

Individually, each of these elements has merit, and swirled up together in such a swampy, sweaty concoction there is a certain trashy appeal, but in the end it’s all too random to really mean anything. Apart from the cast, The Paperboy just doesn’t deliver.