'Paperboy' Delivers Luridness, Amusement
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
I'll give this to "The Paperboy": It's never boring. Based on a novel by Pete Dexter, co-written by Dexter and director Lee Daniels ("Precious"), and featuring a bevy of Hollywood A-listers simulating all manner of unusual behavior, the movie not infrequently hits a frequency that evokes Tennessee Williams out of John Waters. This is pretty unusual and entertaining as far as it goes, but the problem is the extent to which there's anything discernibly noteworthy going on underneath all the luridness.
The motion picture opens with an awkward frame story in which old Jansen family maid Anita (Macy Gray), interviewed by an unseen figure, brings us back to the South in the bad old 1960s, and the murder of a sheriff. Back we go then, as Anita walks in on Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), the paperboy of the title, lying around in his bedroom in his tighty-whities, and the two engage in some banter as to what the upshot would have been had she walked in on Jack engaging in a bout of self-abuse. Do hunky white teen Jack and African-American Anita have a post-racial relationship? Not quite, as future scenes show. But actual bigotry and its social practice are treated here in a very unusual and personalized way here, which in one sense is laudable but in another just contributes to a general feeling of emotional overheatedness.
Shortly thereafter, the plot is set in motion: Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a journalist in Miami, returns to his hometown to look into the murder of the aforementioned sheriff and get the man who's on death row for his murder set free. Or as Anita's implacably banal narration puts it: "Ward came home to investigate the conviction of Hillary Van Wetter. The town wasn't too happy about it and neither was his papa." Papa being a local newspaper publisher.
Things get odder as more characters turn up: Ward's black writing partner, Yardley (David Oyelowo), a tetchy stiff with a plumy British accent; convict Van Wetter's pen pal Charlotte, a bombshell cross between Maggie the Insane Cat and Ann-Margret portrayed by a notably uninhibited Nicole Kidman; convict Van Wetter himself; and the movie deserves some kind of creativity bonus for casting the usually voluble John Cusack as a particularly skin-rash-ridden Faulknerian Idiot Man-Child.
These characters all tends to abrade one another, but none so much as Charlotte arouses Jack, who develops a more than normal erotic obsession with the hottie, who's never worn a skirt that she hasn't tried to spontaneously wiggle out of. The tension leads to several frank exchanges between Jack and Charlotte, one of them ending when the latter makes the observation that she is not apt to "ruin a friendship for a blow job." Always a welcome thing to hear. An ocean mishap in which Jack suffers jellyfish stings leads to the articulation of an unusual immediate antidote to jellyfish venom, and when Jack regains consciousness he notes "I smell awful!" and a peripheral character tells him "That's because that blond lady peed all over your face." Another always-welcome thing to hear. In any event, the Nicole Kidman-urinates-on-Zac Efron scene was the talk of Cannes last spring, and it's everything you'd hoped it would be, if in fact you were hoping for it to be anything.
This material can't help but end up being privileged over the movie's observations concerning racism, careerism, living a lie and other themes that we can all relate to. It's entirely possible that all of these concerns have equal weight in director Daniels' vision, but in the final analysis "The Paperboy" doesn't combine them in a way that makes much more than a superficial sensationalist impression. It's telling to recall that this material was for a time intended to be the debut English-language feature for Pedro Almodovar. At this point in his career, Daniels simply doesn't have the genuine assurance or the directorial toolkit to make a purposeful mix of the elements at work here.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film
critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various
publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He
lives in Brooklyn.