Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Paperboy

The Paperboy is set in a particularly swamp-infested part of Florida circa 1969.  A noir, a sudser, provocation and auterial nut house of a movie, inverted and twisted with indelicate pacing by director Lee Daniels, in his follow-up to Precious, settling, I'm assuming once and for all, that the Oscar-honored 'Based on a novel Push by Sapphire', may have truly been a fluke.  The Paperboy is a mess.  A lurid, humidity-rising tale of a death row inmate, his pen pal lover, the journalists brought along to investigate the crime, and the young paperboy in the middle, The Paperboy, under Daniel's unstable hand tries to be many things at once.  A picaresque period film, or which his team has a lot of fun with inventively period specific production designs, costumes and rendering his images as if they came from that period, yet it's also a hothouse, nearly gratuitous exploitation film as well.  Worst of all, Daniels expresses and filters his coming-from-directions with seemingly sanctimonious examinations of race and sexuality, nearly all of which comes across didactic and more and more off center.  What were left with is pervy, art house kitsch masquerading as art, curiously designed by a filmmaker who has never appears more ego-centric nor full of themselves in attempts to throw away all the rules.

The most fascinating and bewitching component in this trashy endeavor is Nicole Kidman's radiant performance, once that shifts from the mercurial to the deranged in a fly.  Playing a lower class Southern belle named Charlotte, this gutsy, gonzo force of a creation would be viewed as a master class in acting had the stuff surrounding her white trashy gal not been quite so trashy itself.  Charlotte's hobby, or fetish, or something is writing letters to prisoners-- had the film any backbone or substance, we might understand this behavior at least slightly, what we're left with is grand, out there notes from Kidman that express and intrigue as the film confounds and folds in on itself.  Charlotte falls for Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack, doing his best Nicolas Cage impression), a lifer nearing the green mile when an investigation is reopened by two Miami reporters named Ward and Yardley (Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo.)  Along for the ride is Ward's younger brother Jack, a once collegiate swimming prodigy, now horny toad young man wiling away as a paperboy for his father.  Jack is played by Zac Efron, in an attempt to grow from past his Disney awe-shucks roots, all of which might be seen as slightly more impressive had Daniels' not fetishized the twinkly matinee idol with extended long shots of the actor in his underwear.  The story, if there really is one, is mostly from Jack's point of view and the hot days and nights surrounding the investigation and his growing lust with Charlotte.

Based on the novel by Pete Dexter (who co-wrote the film with Daniels), there's a sense that there might be a nifty B-level potboiler to the tale.  The actors are certainly all game, and do the most with the insane shenanigans that Daniels sets out for them, but there's politics involved as well.  The film gets too caught up with the sexual and racial morays of the period to fully let them become entwined with the story.  Oyelowo, Ward's partner, in particular reads like a morally loose spin on Sidney Poitier's In the Heat of the Night character, while Macy Gray, playing both narrator and good-natured housekeeper to Jack's family is something right of The Help.  The sexual politics becomes even murkier as Ward's demons start to surface.  And what may have read or seemed as examined by Daniels, is at times preachy when it's not utterly detestable.  D+

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