Lee Daniels’ has directed three movies, none of them good and his latest, the ludicrous ‘60s Southern tragedy “The Paperboy” is both his best and worst film. It’s his worst in that it casts former Disney star Zac Efron as an aspiring writer who teams with his crusading journalist brother (Matthew McConaughey) and his writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) as they try to prove that renowned regional monster (John Cusack) didn’t commit the murder that saw him sent to death row. It’s his best film because it includes Nicole Kidman as the object of Efron’s affections and the woman who has fallen in love with Cusack’s murderous swamp dweller sight unseen. Kidman, who plays her character like an anthropomorphic Barbie Doll that was dunked into a pool of cheap tanning cream mixed with the ashes of a Tennessee Williams compilation. It’s possible that “The Paperboy” features Kidman’s best performance but it’s also possible that she only shines so brightly because of the rest of the film is such a grimy slog.
From the opening moments of film, where Macy Gray’s surly maid relates the particulars film’s narrative to an unseen party, you know you’re watching a Lee Daniels movie. The camera work is shaky and establishes no sense of time or place and Macy Gray has a large role. Unfocused to the point of unprofessional staging and queasy sex scenes are to Daniels as hypnotic long takes are to Stanley Kubrick. But as opposed to his shockingly pandering “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”, “The Paperboy” improves as it goes. After the shambling opening, the film becomes a sweltering ‘60s melodrama that has the look of a faded and water damaged “Life” magazine pictorial. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer could make a British detective drama look interesting.
For all the gorgeous cinematography John Grisham style narrative, the film breaks down when McConaughey and Kidman meet Cusack to discuss his case and the pair long time pen pals consummate their romance in a way that John Waters would find crass. This sex scene reminds the viewer that no matter has good the cinematography, no matter how interesting the performances, that “The Paperboy” is a Lee Daniels movie. Regardless of the material, Daniels will always circle back to his fascination with degrading, sweaty sex. Right before McConaughey is about to prove that Cusack was falsely convicted, he needs to have some degrading sex. First thing Cusack does after being released from prison is have some degrading sex. When Efron and Kidman finally fall into to bed together for some consensual, non-degrading sex, Daniels cuts away and has the narrator apologize to the audience for the detour into healthy, if age inappropriate behavior.
When Daniels is able to hold back his more unappetizing impulses, the film impresses. Kidman is amazing, setting all ego aside and diving into the role of a love sick fever dream of a desiccated ‘60s party girl. Despite the twenty year age gap between her and Efron, it’s obvious why he falls for her. Kidman vamps like a drag queen and flirts like teenager from their first meeting you know Efron’s repressed paperboy doesn’t stand a chance. I once thought that Kidman could only convincingly portray megalomaniacal monsters as in “Malice” and “To Die For” but she can rock a trashy Southern belle with aplomb.
The rest of the cast ranges from pretty good to terrible but that’s to be expected with a Daniels movie. Efron tries hard but there’s only so much overheated emotion the former Disney channel trained actor can convey before exceeding his abilities and he hits his limit before the opening credits. Watching the undersized “High School Musical” star hurl racial epithets sure is funny though. McConaughey is really interesting when delivering a slurred monologue about the addictive rush of nailing a news story while completely nude but his character is hampered with too many insane character traits to be consistently believable. John Cusack can be a real unattractive old man when he wants to be. David Oyelowo’s sneering British journalist is such a confrontational, condescending bastard that it’s obvious the film was directed by a black person. Scott Glenn also puts in an appearance but has so little to do he must have either been doing someone a favor or had a much bigger part in the script.
Lee Daniels didn’t make a good film with “The Paperboy” and even though he upped his visual game several levels here, it’s doubtful he’ll ever make a film. He’s too entranced with overwrought misery and unappealing sex to make something of significance. If he continues working with talented collaborators, he may someday reach the level of mid ‘90s Gus Van Sant. But I suspect no matter where his career takes him, Daniels will continue to imbue his work with his particular brand of sleaze and there’s something laudable about sticking to your artistic aesthetic, even if it’s a thoroughly terrible one.
“The Paperboy” is available now on Blu-ray and digital streaming through Amazon.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org