Zimbio Review - I Saw 'The Paperboy' and I Need a Shower

(Millenium Entertainment)
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

Disjointed and trashy, The Paperboy is a tough 107 minutes but is carried along by some solid performances from A-list talent.
2012 has reincarnated the pulp genre in a big way thanks to major stars embracing hellish seediness in movies like Killer Joe and this month's The Paperboy. Films like these are instant cult-classics for their polarizing subject-matter and lurid characterizations of Americana. While Killer Joe was set in the heat of Texas, The Paperboy takes us to the swampy inferno of mid-summer deep Florida, a place infested by reptiles from all walks of life. It lacks the black humor of Killer Joe, but boasts another serpentine portrayal from its star, Matthew McConaughey, and it's tantalizing in other ways.

Most of those other ways involve Nicole Kidman, whose trashy go-go performance is her most compelling since The Hours, and immediately recalls the work she did in To Die For. Her character, Charlotte, is a classic femme fatale and Kidman's devotion to the material is the film's greatest asset. Both The Paperboy and Killer Joe coax downright shocking performances from A-list talent, and for that reason alone, the films are worth seeing.

Directed by Lee Daniels, whose previous work Precious was nominated for and won all sorts of critical awards (wrongly in my opinion), The Paperboy deals with some of the same themes Precious did: abject poverty, revolting personalities, and outright racism. Daniels seems intent on making beaten-path films and he deserves credit for that. But, they're not fun to get through. He favors reality over redemption and would rather beat down his audience than instill hope in them. Is he a masochist? It's debatable, but that's probably how he likes it.

It's ironic the biggest problem with The Paperboy is the direction. Using questionable transitions and jerky rhythm, the film is a tiresome exercise. And, we haven't even gotten to the subject material.

Based on Pete Dexter's novel, the story is set in the '60s in Moat County where a local newspaper publisher's (Scott Glenn) two sons reunite. Ward Jansen (McConaughey) has come home from his big city newspaper job to interview and help absolve a convicted murderer whom he suspects was a victim of local redneck justice. His brother, Jack (Zac Efron), the local paperboy, still lives in town after being kicked out of school. He lives at home with Dad, a detestable stepmother (Nealla Gordon), and the family maid (Macy Gray), who narrates the film while being interviewed later on, remembering the past.

Daniels does succeed in giving the film a dirty flashback feel. Its grainy, sepia tones are right for the period, but there's more to it than that. The story has no class, no sheen, and Daniels is sure-handed maximizing those qualities. 

Ward's decision to free the murderer, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), is spurned by the convict's lovelorn epistoler Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a perpetually short-skirted bombshell whose seething sexuality immediately hypnotizes young Jack. Bless is determined to free Van Wetter, whom she's never met in person, and Ward is determined to help, convinced by the veractiy of the case and his own chances of professional acclaim. His British writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) comes along on the job, but is instantly turned off by the racist grunge of his surroundings.

The film's classic scene is not the infamous urination sequence (Bless pees on Jack after a run-in with jellyfish), but a jailhouse encounter where Charlotte and Hillary finally come face-to-face. They copulate without touching while Ward, Yardley, and Jack anxiously avert their eyes, creating immense tension in an environment of no real danger. The film has barely begun, and Daniels bravely marks his territory. The Paperboy, however, is downhill from there.

In classic noir fashion, the film hides major aspects of each character. While its unpredictability is an attraction, the film slogs to each reveal. Choosing instead to jump lazily between transitions, Daniels loses his narrative early on and the film suffers for it. The scenes themselves are riveting, but getting there becomes a chore. Daniels channels David Lynch in "'round the dinner table" discussions and dream sequences, but there's no cohesion to any of it.

The south has long been a rich vein of artistic inspiration, from Tennessee Williams to Elia Kazan to Benh Zeitlin, but The Paperboy's lack of focus makes it more Wild Things than Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It's not a failure, just a moribund exercise in futility. It's disappointing the performances are somewhat wasted by the film's disjointed direction, but I found myself eager to see how Daniels would choose to resolve his tale. Whatever The Paperboy is, it's tough to ignore, and tougher to forget.

See more photos of Zac Efron here:
  • Zac Efron in Zac Efron Touches Down in LA
  • Zac Efron in "The Paperboy" Premiere - Arrivals - 2012 Toronto International Film Festival
  • Zac Efron in "Arbitrage" New York Premiere
  • Zac Efron in "At Any Price" Premiere Post Party - 2012 Toronto International Film Festival
  • Zac Efron in "At Any Price" Premiere - 2012 Toronto International Film Festival
  • Zac Efron in Guess Portrait Studio - Day 4 - 2012 Toronto International Film Festival
  • Zac Efron in The Hollywood Reporter TIFF Video Lounge Presented By Canon - Day 3 - 2012 Toronto International Film Festival
  • Zac Efron in Zac Efron Departs LAX
Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.