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The Paperboy

2012 | 107 min | R | 2.39:1

The Paperboy


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Theatrical release date

 05 October, 2012
 15 March, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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Screenshots from The Paperboy Blu-ray

The Paperboy Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, October 11, 2012

Before he acquired directorial legitimacy and accolades for his work on 2009’s “Precious,” helmer Lee Daniels made his debut with 2006’s “Shadowboxer,” starring Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. It was spectacular trainwreck of a movie, inconsistent and overheated, attempting to generate a typhoon of emotions and violence without a steady creative force guiding the way. Daniels returns to this murky realm with “The Paperboy,” a feature that practically revels in its disorder. Chasing a sweat-stained sense of Floridian turmoil to buttress a thoroughly uninteresting story of murder, Daniels once again mistakes permissiveness for artistry, creating a picture that looks like it was shot on a reel of dirty underwear, developed in a mixture of spit, semen, and alcohol.

In the late 1960s, reporter Ward (Matthew McConaughey) has returned to his rural Florida hometown to investigate the case of inmate Hillary (John Cusack), who’s on death row for the murder of a local sheriff. Hoping to see the man freed is pen pal seductress Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), who’s drawn to Hillary’s unstable nature despite never having met the man. Alongside black writer Yardley (David Oyelowo), Ward digs deep into the local swamplands to fashion a compelling story of innocence, only to discover numerous setbacks and suspicions that threaten the focus of his work. Driving the gang around town is Ward’s brother Jack (Zac Efron), an undersexed young man growing obsessed with Charlotte and her dangerous flirtations, also working on issues of abandonment after his mother ditched the family years earlier. Recalling this tale of murder, sex, and secrets is housekeeper Anita (Macy Gray), a sad woman with an attachment to Ward and Jack, confusing her domestic position during an exhaustive time of unfettered racism.

It’s not that “Precious” was a composed piece of filmmaking, yet its mournful tone and literary foundation kept Daniels in check, daring him to approach the material with a sensation of stability alien to his sensibilities. “The Paperboy” tears off the bridle, returning the helmer to a position of pure excess, this time using a novel by Pete Dexter (who co-scripts with Daniels) as a trampoline to fling himself into the far reaches of Florida crackerdom. It’s a saturated, gritty effort that introduces itself as a puzzle and concludes with yawn, with the midsection devoted to all sorts of sexual activity, betrayals, disasters, and desires, studying characters driven solely by impulse, blinded by the extraordinary humidity found near far-reaching swamplands populated with savage types one would rather not mingle with. Daniels imagines the movie as a roaring, pulpy splatter of bad ideas committed by reckless people, but what he actually achieves here is an astonishing mess that’s purely out to shock, tossing in every unsavory idea he can think of, only lacking a moment where a panicking Charlotte is compelled to urinate all over Jack’s jellyfish-stung body on a public beach.

Actually, that scene is also in the movie.

Shot on 16mm and populated with glistening actors, “The Paperboy” looks vile, which is a compliment, acquiring an accurate read of Floridian discomfort to successfully delve into the plot. Period details pop unnecessarily, but habitual underlining seems to be Daniels’s specialty, with the director more focused on the details of the frame than the story itself. The saga of Hillary and his possible past as a murder is barely tended to by the screenplay, treated as more of an afterthought than the very hand that steers the movie. After introductions are made, “The Paperboy” begins to wander around, touching on racism, abandonment, oedipal complications, S&M, gator gutting, journalistic woes, and sexual repression that culminate in a rowdy scene where Charlotte and Hillary “will” themselves to orgasm while separately seated in a prison visitation room. The only thing that seems to missing here is a volcanic kitchen tryst between Charlotte and Hillary that’s intercut with images of roaming and, in one shot, dying swampland creatures.

Actually, that scene is also in the movie.

“The Paperboy” doesn’t offer refreshing or brave insanity, only the muddled kind, finding Daniels fighting to sustain characterizations he doesn’t believe in, dragging the plot around to no avail -- a problem exacerbated by the finale, which pushes a punishing payoff to a murder mystery that’s abandoned halfway through the effort. There’s some joy in Kidman’s lunatic commitment to a heavily painted Charlotte, doing whatever is asked of her, but she’s the only real bright spot in a chaotic feature. And poor Efron never quite achieves the dramatic profundity he’s reaching for, stuck with a role that requires more time dancing around in his tighty whities than suffering in the deep, dark emotional hole Jack is supposedly trapped inside of.

“The Paperboy” doesn’t come together as a romp or a riddle, lacking concentration on critical elements of the plot. Daniels endeavors to erect a circus tent, not build a story, and his dedication to this Floridian madness results in a monumentally underwhelming picture, satisfying his worst instincts as a filmmaker.

Starring: Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, Scott Glenn
Director: Lee Daniels

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