I liked The Paperboy but not in the way the filmmakers probably intended. I feel like I’ve passed a test. The movie is a dare to say, “So, you like serious, edgy films. Can you handle this? And this? What about THIS?” If you are into that, then you should appreciate all the effort put into shock value. That’s what Lee Daniels does. Last time he applied it to a really sympathetic character. Now do you still like it when it’s really ugly?
Jack (Zac Efron) is a young reporter for his father’s paper. His brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes home to Florida to investigate the case of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) who may be falsely convicted of murder. Joining their investigation is Van Wetter’s pen pal fiance Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman).
Jack and his family maid Anita (Macy Gray) talk freely about masturbation. Charlotte is so sexed up she’s truly outrageous. People will be talking about the first prison visit, but let me be the first to mention a panty shot where you can see pube stubble. I can say pube stubble, right? Random characters talk about titties too, because this is a sleazy world. But that’s easy, you can handle that, right?
There’s a golden shower of sorts, but that’s still kind of playful. We have to meet some swamp folks who seem inbred even if the suggestion is not overt. We basically walk in on a sex crime. That’s Daniels’ thing, so he does it. He makes you watch what’s hard to watch.
The thing is, there’s less of a sense of truth to The Paperboy than there was to Precious. This is also based on a novel (though not the novel Push by Sapphire), but it feels more like the writers are making up edgy stuff. It’s still wild, but I imagine swamp killer sex and rape is a bit more rare than the plight of poverty stricken African Americans in the city.
This is not the idealistic journalist story either. It’s the anti-All the President’s Men. Any themes of a prejudiced legal system or a difficult defendant take a backseat to the depravity. It is worthwhile to have a film take the saccharine out of familiar stories. They used to do that all the time in the ‘70s but it’s been a while for today’s audiences. Romance isn’t going to save anyone. It’s not romantic tragedy either, just messy, perverse and you’ll take it and you’ll like it, dammit.
The performances are quite good. The actors really deliver what the film needs. Kidman is in her glories playing sexuality as desperation. She’s so extremely blonde and tan, she really looks like a ‘60s movie. McConaughey is good in the smooth-talking investigator role, and even better at keeping a character secret without playing to it in a showy fashion. This is probably Efron’s first truly mature role, not that Lucky One movie. Cusack finally gets to go crazy.
Daniels does his artsy style here too. We get some triple split screen frames, some multiple dissolves to slow motion glamour shots set to early disco music, dancing in the rain that’s neither romantic nor whimsical. It’s just weird.
The Paperboy is a rite of passage. Lee Daniels challenges you to experience it. I’d say it’s Daniels’ second best film. It’s no Precious - Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, but not everything can be Precious - Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.