Film Review – The Paperboy

The Paperboy (MA)

Directed by: Lee Daniels

Starring: Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, Macy Grey

Three and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Why is it every time that I see a Lee Daniels movie, I feel the need to bathe with a wire scrubber afterward? The man has a taste for the unpleasant and nasty – first with the incessant abuse and degradation in the city slums in Precious, and now in the sloppy, swampy backwaters of a trashy Florida town in the 1960s. To his credit, he captures them beautifully (or is that horrifically?), and tackle topics that others would run screaming from. But not only does Daniels like to show us things that would make our skin crawl or our stomach churn, but he loves to catapult his audience into the thick of the unpleasantness. While The Paperboy is a more pulpy version of nastiness than Precious and made more palpable with dark humour and a cheeky attitude, by the end, you will feel like you have been dragged kicking and screaming through those sludgy, alligator infested waters.

You can almost smell the sweat and feel the grime in this tawdry thriller that has a reporter, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) return to his home town to investigate a murder case. The bone-chilling Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is on death row for the murder of the town’s unpopular sheriff, but his sexually charged pen-pal sweetheart Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) is convinced of his innocence and wants him released so they can marry. Ward and  his colleague, a very proper British fellow named Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) set up office in the Jansen family home’s shed to dig a little deeper, with the help of Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), who is on the verge of manhood and has affections for Charlotte.

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On the surface, this seems like a straight forward drama/thriller but it is laced with surprising and confronting sequences that get the blood pumping. Of course there is the much talked about Kidman-urinates-on-Efron scene which is actually one of the more refreshingly lighter moments in an otherwise heavy film. But there is also Charlotte and Hillary’s eye-opening first face-to-face encounter that is so steamy that it could fog up your spectacles. In fact, it is Kidman in her supporting role, who figures in both these scenes, that shines as she fearlessly throws herself into these scripted situations and proves yet again that she is daring, game and one of the most adventurous actresses working today. Could you imagine Hollywood sweetheart Julia Roberts squatting over her leading man to relieve herself, or Sandra Bullock tearing at her stockings to give her onscreen lover a clearer peek up her tight skirt?  She is matched by the ever reliable McConaughy, and Cusack, who sheds his good guy persona and turns in a chilling performance worthy of recognition.

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Unfortunately the number of sequences that do not stand out is significantly higher than the ones that do. Despite an abundance of twists, this story rattles on as it attempts, unsuccessfully, to explore far too many themes. Had it bitten off an appropriate amount to chew on for what is essentially a trashy thriller, The Paperboy might have been less of a shore. Instead, this cousin to the deliciously fun and equally sleazy Wild Things (1998) tackles class, gender and race struggles that were experienced during the era in which the story is set. But adding substance to pulp doesn’t always work.

Daniels’ other misgivings is his inability to strike the correct pace. While the pacing finally picks up in the twist heavy final half hour, those twists do become exhausting and serve to just extend the film’s running time. Had they been spaced out or come a little earlier in the all too relaxed midsection, the ride might have been more consistently entertaining. However, this tale is far too fun for the most part to be wholly dismissed as the train wreck it has been often incorrectly labelled as. Slammed for being trashy, like it is a bad thing, but it is the film’s saving grace. That and Kidman’s unforgettable performance.

 

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