Lee Daniels‘ The Paperboy technically has a plot. It’s an idiotic, rambling plot that has no level of cohesion or momentum whatsoever, but it’s a story that chronologically follows from “A” to “B”. Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy has characters. They’re gross, idiotic people whose actions are repulsive and ambitions are bizarre, but their repulsive behavior and bizarre ambition are consistent. Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy doesn’t earn points just because it meets the bare minimum of plot and character since it fails on just about every level of filmmaking. Daniels, in his effort to go big all the time, mistakes luridness for atmosphere, sweat for character, and style for substance.
The story is framed by what appears to be a reporter interview Anita (Macy Gray), a maid who worked for the Jansen family. Set in Moat County, Florida in 1969, Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) works as a paperboy for his father’s local newspaper. His brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) works as a reporter for the Miami Times alongside Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), and the duo have come to Moat County to investigate the case of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) at the behest of Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman who gets off on cock-teasing inmates. Van Wetter was accused of killing the racist Sheriff Call, but the convict claims he was busy stealing at the time of the murder. He’s still a horrible, degenerate creep who’s clearly not right in the head, but that doesn’t mean he’s guilty of Call’s murder.
For some reason, Ward and Yardley believe this case of injustice is so compelling that they’ll waste weeks of their lives investigating the case. In another confusing development, Jack, who tags along as their driver, is enamored for Charlotte even though there’s absolutely nothing appealing about her. Her makeup makes her look sexy in the same way that makeup makes clowns look funny. The characters are consistent in what they want, but what they want is incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t white trash (Yardley isn’t white trash; he’s just out of his depth).
Everything in The Paperboy oozes. The movie is gross characters doing gross things in gross places. Daniels has created a filthy world because it’s a catchy style, and the cinematography follows this misguided approach. The film is made to look like it was shot as a low-budget late 60s/early 70s exploitation picture. However, the key element of an exploitation picture is that we’re meant to enjoy it. We may feel guilty about our enjoyment, but no one goes to an exploitation picture just to feel dirty. There’s not an ounce of intentional joy in The Paperboy; just grime and sadness.
Any humor is purely a result of Daniels going so far around the bend that uncomfortable laughter is the only way to react. When Charlotte goes with Ward, Yardley, and Jack to visit Hillary in prison, she’s not allowed to touch him. So her solution is to give him the air-guitar version of a blowjob. She spreads her legs, mimes fellatio, and then we see Hillary jizz in his pants. It’s not enough for Daniels to simply show us Hillary’s orgasm-face. No, we have to see semen stain across Hillary’s pant leg.
I don’t know what Daniels has against his actors, but he has gone out of his way to make them look as unappealing as possible. If you’ve ever found Nicole Kidman attractive, The Paperboy will make sure to douse that fire for all eternity. I can’t think of any reason why Daniels would include a scene of Charlotte pissing on Jack because he was stung by jellyfish*. Like the air-guitar-blow-job scene, Daniels could shoot around the gross stuff if he wanted, but he’s so desperate to leave an impression that he lingers on urine drenching poor, unconscious Jack. So if you ever wanted to see Nicole Kidman pee on Zac Efron’s face, Lee Daniels has answered your bizarre and oddly specific prayer.
The motivation for including scenes in The Paperboy seems to make sure they’re icky. If a scene doesn’t churn your stomach or insult your intelligence, then Daniels feels he isn’t doing his job. There’s no time to waste giving the scenes any connective tissue and having them progress like a real story. Little things like “Understanding How the Characters Feel” are handled by Antia simply telling us in her narration. And even her narration is screwy since halfway through the film, she acknowledges that we’re watching a movie, and that we shouldn’t spend too much time watching a sex scene. While I don’t disagree with her assessment, it completely switches the framing device with no explanation as to why.
The Paperboy isn’t Daniels trying to shock us out of complacency. Some moments are too stupid to ignore, but for the most part we remain unengaged as the film slithers along to the next idiotic moment. Daniels took us to a horrible place in his last film, Precious, but it fit the setting, and was counterbalanced by the character’s desire to break free of her awful circumstances. The Paperboy wallows in its wretchedness like a pig in shit, and if there had been a scene where a character wallowed around in a pile of shit, it wouldn’t have been out of place.
*For the record, peeing on a jellyfish wound only makes things worse. Pee does not contain healing properties.
For all of our TIFF 2012 coverage, click here. Here are links to all of my TIFF 2012 reviews:
- Anna Karenina
- Arthur Newman
- At Any Price
- Cloud Atlas
- End of Watch
- Hyde Park on Hudson
- The Iceman
- A Late Quartet
- The Master
- Much Ado about Nothing
- On the Road
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower
- The Place Beyond the Pines
- Seven Psychopaths
- Silver Linings Playbook
- Spring Breakers
- Stories We Tell
- To the Wonder