Thursday, May 9, 2013

All Style, Not Much Else -- Reflections on "The Paperboy" (2012)

These men might actually be audience members watching this movie.

[Note: there are spoilers in this review, so don’t read unless you’ve A) seen the film, or B) like to be spoiled]

Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy is a lurid, dark morass of a film. Like its characters, it is clothed in garish colors, tinted with 60s highlights, and has absolutely no sense of direction or morality. And, like its characters, it is trying real hard to have meaning, but ultimately winds up being about nothing.

The film starts off as a right-to-life tale. Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) gets tasked with being the driver for his big time newspaper reporter brother, Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and Ward’s colleague, Yardley (David Oyelowo) as they pursue the truth behind the murder of a small town sheriff at the hands of a disgusting pustule of a human named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Van Wetter’s pen pal girlfriend, Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), is looking to rescue her man from the death penalty and brings all her goods (both literary and physical) to the table to help them. The early question is whether or not Van Wetter, repulsive or not, deserves fair representation under the law. This is a question that better films, like Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking, have explored already to greater depth. And just as Daniels’s film begins making some headway in this direction, he switches stories on us.

Eventually, the movie becomes a banal sex drama in which Jack falls in love with Charlotte despite her declarations of love for Hillary and rejection of Jack’s advances. There is next-to-no heat between Efron and Kidman, and while their age difference is referenced (literally at one point, and at another as we see Jack reading a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita on the beach) it only matters as a talking point. The second half of the movie deals with this lame love story, the high point being when Charlotte is forced to urinate on Jack after he is attacked by jellyfish at the beach. The scene is meant to be racy, but it plays more as a curiosity than anything erotic.

But the film finishes as a thriller. Eventually, Hillary is released from prison, and takes Charlotte away to live in a swamp, forcing the heroic Jack and his brother to try to redeem her by rescuing her from Hillary’s kingdom on the swamp. It’s an anti-climatic mess that doesn’t quite pick up any steam, and never really builds on tension.

 I like the style of the film. It looks like a washed out print from 1968, and the production design is spot on. The casting is terrific, for the most part, with Efron looking the part more than actually playing it. McConaghey, whose character we eventually discover is a closeted homosexual with a desire for black men, is fantastic, and should have been the film’s focal character. I was also impressed by Macy Gray’s performance as Anita, the Jansen’s servant, and our story’s narrator. Her agitation and natural anxiety keep the story rolling when the love story begins bogging it down.

I’m not sure what Lee Daniels was thinking when he took on this project. His previous movie, Precious, was an outstanding social criticism about our education and social service systems and how much power they wield in the lives of the underprivileged. The Paperboy has no such ambition thematically. Since it bounces around a lot in the focus of its story, at any one time it can be about unrequited lust, the presumptuous nature of the criminal justice system, race and ambition, and the blindness of love. But it never says anything about any of these topics that isn’t immediately obvious, or constructed with cliché symbols. Hell, Ward loses sight in one eye during a homosexual liaison gone wrong as evidence that our lust blinds us to the truth of people’s convictions. This wouldn’t be so bad if the film went somewhere with it; but it just uses it as a footnote before jumping on to the next plot point.

I think this movie just got away from him, because beyond all the talk about meaning and symbols, the movie is no fun. You would think that seeing Nicole Kidman dress as a 60s sexpot—with her teased hair, tight skirts, and Bond-girl eye make-up—might spice the film up a bit. Instead, she’s about as sexy as Magda, the old crone in There’s Something About Mary. Efron plays the pretty boy, but he’s so serious the whole film that it sucks all the life out of everything. McConaghey is the only one who brings any vitality to the proceedings, and it seems like the script is dismissing his character half the time in order to attend to something less interesting. I like the intent of the film, but this subject matter is crushed under the weight of the seriousness.

The Paperboy is a meaningless wreck of a picture. The narrative meanders, never seems to settle on anything substantial, and leaves you more interested in the disturbing, pulpy moments than it does in any resonant themes. 

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