Director Lee Daniel’s follow-up to his brilliant “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” is not what you would think we’d get after that film.
“The Paperboy” is a trashy melodrama — a seedy, sordid tale of unlikable, pretty people doing unlikable, ugly things. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received lackluster reviews. This review will be no different.
The film certainly reeks with a sense of place, set in steamy 1960s South Florida. The locale is so humid and every character so sweaty, you’ll want to take a shower afterward.
The film is based on the novel by Pete Dexter, and is narrated by Anita (singer-turned-actress Macy Gray), who works as a maid for the Jansen family. She really mostly cleans up after Jack (Zac Efron), a listless, aimless playboy who spends his days walking around the house in his tighty-whities while tormenting Anita with sexual innuendos.
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The plot is told in flashbacks by Anita, and concerns a murder committed by death-row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Jack’s brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) is a reporter and returns home with colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the story.
It seems that a woman, Charlotte (Nicole Kidman doing her sultry tramp bit), is trying to get Van Wetter freed, and has written local newspapers to champion her cause. She believes he is innocent.
But one trip to visit Van Wetter in prison with Ward, Yardley, Jack and Charlotte, and we know that he is anything but angelic. He is more like pure evil. And while this meeting is supposed to be an interview by the reporters, it actually turns into a sexually sadomasochistic exchange between Charlotte and Van Wetter while everyone else watches (it goes on way too long).
The real story, though, follows Jack, who has a crush on Charlotte, and Anita thinks this has bad implications. Especially when Jack is hired by Ward to be the driver for their investigation (though why no one else can drive on their own isn’t explained). Jack starts spending a lot of time with Charlotte, who tantalizes and teases him because she knows she can get away with it.
But her heart belongs to Van Wetter (though we can’t possibly imagine why). She has become sort of a “death row groupie,” seemingly attracted to his bad-boy ways. In his investigation, Ward reads several of the letters that were exchanged between Charlotte and Van Wetter prior to his arrival, and let’s just say that they’re not printable in this family newspaper.
Several of the acts done in this film aren’t. Others are mind-boggling as to why they’re included at all. For instance, one particular scene has Charlotte urinating on Jack after he is stung by a jellyfish.
It all makes for an uncomfortable, uneasy experience. We begin to actually feel bad for the actors.
It is nice, though, to see Efron want to branch out and take risks here, though his acting is still bland and his Southern accent questionable. Gray does an ample job, though her raspy, child-like voice gets grating. Everyone else gives it their all in their roles — almost too much so. Everything goes over the top. It emerges as camp — albeit unfunny camp.
The film flirts with social commentary at times, but its luridness overrides everything. It makes “The Paperboy” addictive, like a bad soap opera you keep watching to see just how ridiculous it will get. The film certainly sticks in your mind, but that’s not necessarily a good thing here.