Pauline Kael famously said, “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” If you haven’t heard it yet in reference to The Paperboy, I assure you that you will soon, again and again. It’s an apt, if oversimplified, comment on the kind of experience Lee Daniels’ new film delivers to the audience. An uneven mess? Yes. A sexy, seductive thriller? Yup. A tonal piecemeal of bizarre scene after bizarre scene? Of course. Yet, somehow, The Paperboy doesn’t alienate as much as intoxicate. By the end, you get the feeling that you too are fatigued by the rampant humidly, in deep need of a beer, and mentally lusting after Nicole Kidman’s long, sweaty legs. It’s not pornographic, so much as spiritual in the Flannery O’Connor/William Faulkner sort of way. Perhaps, the disjointed relation between film and audience is precisely what Daniels’ strange film was intending, but God only knows.
The Paperboy tells the story of Jack (Efron), a young man at the cusp of adulthood, who gets tangled in the most bizarre murder mystery and trap of sexual desire imaginable. Jack’s dad runs the local Florida newspaper and his brother Ward (McConaughey) is a homosexual writer for the Miami Times. Ward comes back to town with a British black man named Yardley (Oyelowo) to investigate whether a convicted murderer, Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack), was wrongfully accused. Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a horny woman who likes to write letters to prison inmates, joins the fray as she has apparently fallen for Hillary. The sexual passion Jack begins to feel for Charlotte generates the majority of screen time, as the investigation acts only as a background thread to bind the crazed characters together.
I remember when I first started watching French New Wave films, I was struck by how they would purport to have a classic Hollywood plot – maybe a murder mystery, a love story, a revenge tale – but actually they would gleefully investigate the ways in which cinema could peel back layers of human behavior. It might sound naive to call The Paperboy a throwback to the French New Wave, but throughout the movie I did feel that same sensation. There are classic scenes in this movie that tread very close to the realm of farce. Charlotte urinating on Jack and Hillary demanding to be sexually pleasured without any touching seem destined to be cult fodder. But isn’t that one of the great joys of storytelling? How an artist can envision a serious drama by at the same time laughing at the absurdity of human behavior? Sure this film could have handled its heavy subject matter with the directness of some stuffier Hollywood dramas, but imagine how forgettable that would be. Think A Love Song for Bobby Long.
In tone, concept, and setting, The Paperboy reminded me of a more confrontational version of The Beasts of the Southern Wild. I couldn’t help but think how 2012 is shaping up to be the year of reality-turned-fantastical pictures. Cosmopolis, Beasts, The Master, Bernie, and The Paperboy all wrap deeper issues of social pressures, control, and repression into tales of dramatic whimsy. Like the classic Hollywood pictures of the mid-20th-century, one has to wonder if these films are fed up with audiences not taking topics seriously enough, so now they want to berate them with the over-the-top fury of satire and farce.
For all it’s “trashy” stylings, The Paperboy actually manages to deliver the two best female performances I’ve seen all year. Perhaps, no surprise that Nicole Kidman spun white trash cougar into hyper sexual layers. At the end of the picture, with just a glance at her former love, the killer Hillary, we can read the sorrow she feels at pushing Jack away. The most horrifying yet lustful of sex scenes in motion picture history follows as we watch Kidman go through the shades of youthful libido and intellectualized hurt. Hillary, the mad animal, mounts her like a wild dog. She loves it for the relief it provides, but at the same time despises what it actually means. Matching Kidman surprisingly well, Macy Gray is startling as the tough cleaning lady, Anita. From the very first image, shaken by nicotine-induced head wobbles and nervous hands, Gray reflects the uneasy chaos of the story we are about to see. Anita remains the moral anchor, the calming presence, and motherly observer to a world filled with greed, psychosis, and a whole lot of sex. She doesn’t judge. She just does her job and expects fair returns from the people she loyally serves. Neither Kidman nor Gray have a fighting chance of being recognized by the Oscars (something I didn’t realize until actually seeing the film). That’s more a referendum on Hollywood’s short-sightedness than the profound work these women do.
Gray’s presence as the housekeeper also acts as a window into a world that handles race as an equal opportunity, violent power trip. The respect Anita demands from the boys runs deeper than what their father or stepmother could ever imagine. The black writer, Yardley, has the business savvy to fake a British accent and blackmail his more charismatic, white counterpart. When Ward is found raped and beaten, he looks a lot like the sort of hog-tied tragic photos that have scarred the history of the American South. Except in this case the black men, not the white men, are the perpetrators of senseless terror.
They say you can’t ever predict what will become a cult classic, but judging from the audience reaction in my theater, The Paperboy sure looks like one. For all the talk of its gratuitous and trashy veneer, there’s actually something to this picture, something that make me want to come back to it and think about it. I can say with certainty I have never seen another film like The Paperboy. And I mean that in a very good way. Sure, the film will alienate a number of viewers because you either buy into it or you don’t. However, It’s unfair to just throw out the “Trashterpiece Theatre” quotes and leave it at that. Nonetheless, its the peculiarity of The Paperboy that has the potential to put butts in the seats and any way for a large audience to see an interesting film is good enough for me. [A]