As many of you are aware before I became a film critic, before I started writing criticism twenty five years ago I had a life as a stage director and even today I can sometimes be enticed, with the right play, to direct. For about ten years I directed some of the finest American plays ever written including Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, The Shadow Box, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the works of Tennessee Williams. The greatest challenges were always the works of Williams, who wrote with such beautiful language he often contradicted the dubious goings on within the play with that gorgeous language. Williams wrote about abuse, sex, nymphomania, dysfunction, lust, cannibalism and all sorts of horrors from the human condition (not that sex is horrible). Watching The Paperboy, I thought about Williams and how he might have written had he lived today. His private life was one of despair, bath houses, one night stands, strange sex with stranger men, and experimentation with gay sex. Would these things work their way into his writing if he were alive and writing today? Maybe. If Williams had wrote a film today it might be The Paperboy, though the language is not as pretty. I kept thinking of the word lurid.
People forget that Nicole Kidman is a gifted actress able to dig into a role and bring it vividly to life. She’s got her Oscar for The Hours (2002), was nominated two other times for Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Rabbit Hole (2010) and perhaps should have been nominated for To Die For (1995) and Cold Mountain (2003). In To Die For (1995) she got the chance to flex her comedic muscles in this dark, nasty comedy based on the true story of a weather woman for a local TV station who convinced a student to kill her husband. She was a dark delight in the film, and we understood why any young man would do her bidding. She flexes her acting muscles within The Paperboy as well, along with her considerable sex appeal and once again we understand why a man would be attracted to her and do her bidding. She gives a commanding performance in The Paperboy, the film’s best, and like the other actors has a great deal of fun in the process, as a carnal woman who knows how to get what she wants.
Lee Daniels was last here at TIFF with Precious (2009) his devastating film that explored the horror show life of an obese black girl who finally takes control of her life and lashes back at her abusive mother. The film was startling in its raw power, the performance of Mo’nique particularly brilliant winning the actress one of the film’s two Oscars. Nominated for Best Picture, Actress, and Director, the picture took a second Oscar for Screenplay Adaptation and put Daniels on the map as a director. He is in very different territory here with The Paperboy, but the characters are no less interesting, the actors no less committed to their roles. Set in 1969 the film explores the goings on in a small Florida town when a hotshot Miami reporter Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughey) comes home to do some investigation into a conviction he feels his wrong. He enlists the help of his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) who ends more a driver than anything else, his partner Yeardley (David Oyebono) and a faded Southern sexpot Charlotte (Kidman) to help him set free a man sitting on Death Row, guilty of killing a racist sheriff, supposedly. Hillary (John Cusack) is a nasty piece of work sitting in prison, but he may not have killed the sheriff. That said he is no innocent. Charlotte is entranced with prisoners and Hillary is her latest infatuation; why? Who knows?
Young Jack develops a healthy lust for Charlotte, something she does nothing to display, and they all head into the backwaters and swamps of southern Florida to find out exactly what happened with Hillary. It will turn out that the backwater holds dangers and secrets as each character hold them as well. They are surprising evolutions for each character when we find them out, though one comes as no real surprise if you are paying attention.
Kidman is a knockout in the part, all legs and push up bras, and sexual flirtation. She knows exactly what she is doing when she does it, and Charlotte is a master of manipulation when using her wiles. There is a lot of comedy in her performance, and a great deal of physicality including a scene in which she urinates on Jack after a jelly fish bite. McConaughey continues the year he is having with another strong performance, and John Cusack is very good as the vicious Hillary, a truly nasty character unlike anything the actor has done before. It is with Zac Efron that Daniels fails, allowing his camera to swoon over the young man’s rippling upper torso, which bathed in sweat I for one was tired of seeing. By doing so he trivialized the work the actor was doing, did not take his work seriously and hurt his own film. Macy Gray does an “interesting” (I will not say good) job with the narration and her performance as the maid of the brothers, though from time her narration sounds as though she were zonked on sleeping pills.
Daniels leaves plot holes wide open, beginning with Charlotte’s obsession with criminals, Ward’s interest in the case, and the nagging question, if Hillary did not do it, then who did?? Despite the issues I have with the film, it was immensely watchable and I got a kick out seeing Kidman being so overtly sexual in the role; not since Eyes Wide Shut (1999) has she been in such command of her sexuality. This will be a guilty pleasure for me, not much more.