NYFF: When discussing this film after seeing it at the New York Film Festival, my friend and colleague from The Playlist Drew Taylor said something that pretty much sums up our thoughts on Lee Daniels’ latest work. Drew said that there’s “good trash” and there’s “bad trash”. Well ladies and gentlemen, ‘The Paperboy’ is definitely bad trash. It aspires to be pulpy and scummy in a way that suggests that it’s so bad that it’s good, but it never gets there and repeatedly shows off just how bad of a filmmaker I find Daniels to be. All of the bad habits that he annoyed me with in ‘Precious’ are on display here in triplicate. His saving grace again is his ability to get a terrific supporting female performance out of his cast, and many of the actors here do fine work, especially Nicole Kidman and John Cusack, but almost everything else here downright sucks. From a screenplay that you could be charitable in calling mediocre to amateurish camera work and editing all the way to any number of bizarre filmmaking decisions, this is definitely trash, just not that kind that the cast and crew intended it to be. For every interesting decision that ‘The Paperboy’ makes, there are at least two that make you scratch your head. The film opens on Friday so you’ll hypothetically be able to see for yourself what a mess this is if you’re inclined, but I wouldn’t want you to waste your time on this nonsense.
The story sets itself up to be a gritty Southern crime thriller, but right off the bat we start with a terrible framing device and narration by Anita Chester (Macy Gray), retelling the events of the film at a later date through a flashback. The film takes place in a small Florida town during the late 1960’s in the aftermath of the murder of a racist sheriff. The crime is pinned on white trash swamp dweller Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack) and he’s tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. This catches the interest of Miami Times reporters Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), who come to Ward’s old hometown to investigate. Ward’s father W.W. Jansen (Scott Glenn) runs the local newspaper and Ward’s brother Jack (Zac Efron) delivers them. Ward recruits Jack to be their driver and they meet Charlotte Bless (Kidman), the woman who’s been writing love letters back and forth to Hillary and fighting for his release. Jack immediately falls in love with her, but Charlotte is convinced that she’s in love with Hillary, and in fact is engaged to him. This leads to a memorable first meeting in the prison with all of them present, followed by an investigation that uncovers plenty of horrific things. All the while, Jack and Charlotte grow closer and his borderline obsession with her gets more and more intense. The film seeks to answer a number of questions while the plot takes a number of twists and turns. Is Hillary innocent? What are the true motivations of everyone involved? Also, if there any real point to this movie? I’ll only spoil the answer to that last question by saying no, not really.
Acting wise, this is a mixed bag of a movie, but more of them are good than bad and it represents the only portion of the flick that I’d deem as being at least somewhat successful. Nicole Kidman is easily the best part of the movie as well as the cast, giving a raw and fearless performance that surely would garner her some awards talk if the film itself were better. She’s incredibly sexualized and damaged, but Kidman finds a real should in the character. Someone at the NYFF screening I attended called her a “Swamp Barbie” and I think that’s an apt description. She absolutely walks away with the flick. John Cusack as well delivers a startling supporting turn, essaying a character completely devoid of the goodness and likability that has defined his career to date. He’s over the top at times and isn’t always directed amazingly well, but overall it’s a strong performance, if not on Kidman’s level. It’s no surprise that the best scenes in the movie, as such that they are, happen to feature both Cusack and Kidman, often engaged in some sort of sex act. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare quite as well. Zac Efron is perfectly fine in the “lead” role, but his character is by far the least interesting of the group. Matthew McConaughey underwhelms after giving much better performances earlier this year, and both Macy Gray and David Oyelowo are decent but forgettable, though the latter gets a moment to shine in the third act. The rest of the cast includes the aforementioned Scott Glenn, plus Ned Bellamy and Nealla Gordon as well. It all comes back to Kidman though…
My patience with Lee Daniels is wearing thin. All of my issues with his last film ‘Precious’ had to do with his direction, and here he doubles down on those problems, also adding poor screenwriting to the mix, though part of that blame lies at the feet of co-writer Pete Dexter, who also wrote the book that the movie is based on. All of the characters are underwritten, the elements that the script tries to touch on are only ham-fistedly addressed, and the story itself moves in fits and starts. Obviously, the flashy direction of Daniels is supposed to shield some of this, but when he’s making as many poor decisions behind the camera as he is here, it only magnifies the flaws. He resembles a college student playing around with Final Cut more than a filmmaker who’s been nominated for Best Director. Daniels does manage to evoke atmosphere in a good way during the course of the film, but just about every other element of his direction leaves much to be desired.
I’m sure plenty of you will be checking out ‘The Paperboy’ this weekend, as much to find out about the much talked about urination scene (it’s there, and sort of pointless) as anything else, but what you’re getting is a damn near terrible film as well. I was always unsure about what this would be, but the final product is in contention for a spot on my Bottom 10 of 2012 list. Nicole Kidman is great, but everything else just sucks. This is trash, pure and simple. No need to waste your time with it.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!