Review: The Paperboy (TIFF 2012)
PLOT: Jack Jensen (Zac Efron) is the son of a newspaper tycoon, living in small-town Florida circa 1969. His older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) returns home, with posh writer Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) in tow, at the behest of the town tramp- Charlotte (Nicole) to investigate the alleged crime of a death-row inmate, Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack) that she's fallen in love with.
REVIEW: To call Lee Daniels' film THE PAPERBOY divisive is an understatement of epic proportions. If the Cannes critics were expecting another PRECIOUS, they had another thing coming when they got a load of his steamy, southern fried adaptation of Pete Dexter's novel (Dexter adapts his own work for the screenplay). Playing to nearly universal pans, the intriguing part of it's Cannes reception were the odd reviews where the writer liked the film, which had me think that THE PAPERBOY would indeed be one to catch at TIFF.
To my delight, THE PAPERBOY proved to be right up my alley. The thing is, I love trash- as long as it's good trash. THE PAPERBOY is REALLY good trash. The studio will probably try to sell this as a mystery-thriller in the Grisham-mold (hilariously wrong-headed), but really- that's all window dressing. The most important character in the film, Jack- as played by a remarkably good Zac Efron doesn't do a thing to investigate whether Van Wetter is innocent or not, and his role in examining the mystery is peripheral. But, despite his immaturity- which Daniels goes out of his way to establish over and over- including allowing himself to be goaded into calling Oyelowo's character the “n-word”, Jack proves to be the voice of reason in a way. Mostly due to his infatuation with the trashy but gorgeous Charlotte- who's somehow fallen in love with the crazy Van Wetter (she has a thing for jailbirds), he's the one person who thinks Van Wetter is best left to rot in prison- a POV that tragically proves to be the smartest in the film. Efron is really striking in his first truly grown up role, as it's not the easiest part to play, and he does so with nary a misstep.
Of course, the film is Nicole Kidman's to steal as the slutty Charlotte, and boy oh boy, does she sink her teeth into the role. The sophisticated Kidman's never played a character quite Charlotte, and while she plays her as a tramp, she doesn't do so in a condescending way, but rather in a way that makes her sympathetic and even likable.
But what really sealed the deal for me with THE PAPERBOY is the way two of it's actors, John Cusack and Matthew McConaughey totally subvert their screen images. Cusack excels playing the insane, repulsive Van Wetter, who manages to wrap Charlotte around his finger through exploiting her own self-hatred. Cusack's so convincing that he's playing a similar part in the upcoming FROZEN GROUND, and it goes without saying that he hasn't been this good since maybe HIGH FIDELITY.
For his part, McConaughey, who's been excelling in his last few films by burning down his own image (he deserves an Oscar nomination for KILLER JOE), furthers that run with his part in THE PAPERBOY. On the surface, it would seem that his character Ward is just another take on the same crusading characters he's played in films like A TIME TO KILL, but another, self-destructive streak is gradually revealed. The only one who manages to sense this right away is Cusack, who questions the subtle scars around McConaughey's mouth, and his fate in THE PAPERBOY is one of the braver, more sobering things I've seen in a major film in quite sometime. It's amazing how good McConaughey has proven himself to be lately, and this continues that trend.
In the meantime, Daniels, coats THE PAPERBOY with the saucy, sordid sheen of a good seventies exploitation film. Shot in deliciously grainy 16MM, with subdued colours, and everyone coated with sweat, the look of THE PAPERBOY reminds me off classic southern fried capers like WHITE LIGHTENING and GATOR (Burt Reynolds would be proud). It's a total 180 from PRECIOUS, but Daniels, to my way of thinking anyways, really pulls it off. In fact, I'd wager that I much prefer THE PAPERBOY to that film.
But- it goes without saying that THE PAPERBOY will likely turn large chunks of the audience off. Certainly, a film that includes a scene where Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron to save his life will have that effect. You either roll with it or you don't. I rolled with it. No matter what side of the fence you come down on, it can't be denied that this is damn entertaining. Whether or not you hate yourself afterwards for liking it depends on the person I guess.